Mick Jagger: ‘It was so long ago I can’t remember. I didn’t know what I was doing’

As he lends his glorious voice to a new spy thriller, the Rolling Stone relives his greatest roles

Where is Mick Jagger right now? "I'm in Frahhhnce where it's rather grey," drawls the 78-year-old singer with exaggerated languor. "I can't even in my wildest imagination call it spring-like." Even down a crackling phone line, the voice is hypnotically rich: the dense delicious timbre, the sudden leaps between high and low notes. Then there are those vowels. Maroon 5 had a hit in 2010 singing about his moves, but no one does vowels quite like Jagger.

That much is clear from Strange Game, the grungy theme song he has recorded for the six-part adaptation of Mick Herron’s acerbic spy novel Slow Horses. The series concerns a team of disgraced spooks relegated to an insalubrious office tucked behind the Barbican. Jagger sneers at these rejects on the song, branding them “losers, misfits and boozers” before announcing: “You’re finished, you’re foolish, you faiiiled.”

Their boss is a bitter, flatulent old bully played by Gary Oldman. "It's slightly written from his point of view," the singer explains. "I figured I'd make it kind of about him and his frustrations with his crew. You know, 'Surrounded by losers' blah-blah-blah. But I also tried to make the point that they all want to redeem themselves. They have this ambition to do good somehow, and to prove they're not worthless."

Working with Mick Jagger was 'like I convinced Picasso to come round and paint my front room'

Strange Game was written remotely by Jagger and the composer Daniel Pemberton, who still haven't met in person. "What's incredible is how much Mick conveys and distils the mood of the book," says Pemberton. "That's hard to do but he hit it out of the park straight away. We were expecting to get a cool song that might not have any relevance to the story but he instantly sets up that whole world. From a sonic point of view, he has this amazing mastery over his voice. Inflections that seem off-the-cuff are all highly controlled. It's like working with a precious material that's in limited supply."

The squalid mood of the lo-fi production is enhanced by Jagger’s camp, taunting delivery: swaggering one minute, whispery the next. “Daniel liked it wordy,” he recalls. “But I said, ‘You can’t just have me saying loads and loads of words’, so I put in a few ‘ooh-ooh’s and things to give it that slightly eerie atmosphere.”

I start to ask if I can take him back half a century to another specially written composition of his, but he interrupts before I can finish the question: "Please don't," he says, a theatrical tremor in his voice. Then he continues in a tone of mock-outrage: "Half a century? Half a century to what?" To his song Memo from Turner, that writhing electric eel of a number which he belts out midway through the 1970 film Performance – the cult favourite in which Jagger is a debauched rock star holed up in his Notting Hill pad with a gangster played by James Fox.

How did writing Strange Game compare to that? “Weeeell,” he says, stringing the word out in such a way as to suggest he considers the inquiry rather spurious. “That was a song which slotted inside of a movie so it’s not really comparable. Insofar as it relates to the story, I suppose it’s got some vague similarity but it’s not the same kind of gig at all.”

How does he feel now about his performance in Performance? “Blimey, it’s so long ago I can’t remember! It was quite a lot of hard work and I’d never done a film before, so I was really learning and didn’t know what I was doing. I had to be quite concentrated on getting it right. It’s a strange movie in some ways. But in certain ways it holds up.” Perhaps modesty forbids him from calling it a masterpiece, which it surely is, or from recognising that it brings intact to the screen his most wickedly feral qualities.

Having followed Performance with an eccentric turn as the notorious Australian outlaw in Ned Kelly, Jagger expressed the desire to be a "character actor". He hoots at the idea now. "Did I say that? The thing is that in those days, you didn't get many offers. It's much easier today for people in music to get film parts. There used to be a lot of prejudice against people in the music business – it was like they could only do that one thing, and it was just stunt casting really that you were offered." Do actors and singers tend to share a skill-set? "There are similarities and crossovers. You do have to project and become someone else but they are completely different disciplines. What little acting I've done, I've always enjoyed. But just because you're on stage entertaining 50,000 people, it doesn't follow necessarily that you're going to be a very good actor." Yet he is. The director Sean Mathias discovered as much when he cast Jagger alongside Clive Owen and Ian McKellen in his 1997 film of Bent, Martin Sherman's play about the persecution of gay men under nazism. Jagger has a small role as Greta, who croons Philip Glass's Streets of Berlin while sitting atop a trapeze in a black sheer gown, curly wig and drop earrings. If stealing a movie were a crime, he would have got life without parole.

"Performance is the reason I thought of Mick for Greta," says Mathias. "It's his presence, isn't it? The beauty, the androgyny. He's so strange-looking, so sexual and beautiful. A bit of an animal. He's got the face of a much older person but the skinny body of a teenager. He has that enviable metabolism. He was still with Jerry Hall at the time, and he told me: 'Jerry wants to kill me. I can eat whatever I like, whereas she only has to look at a chip and she puts on weight.'"

Mathias remembers Jagger as “a collaborative company member. He had an entourage but never abused his power. He’s got an amazing brain. He’s interested in a huge array of subjects, and can talk about all of them. And he’s tremendous fun at dinner – he’s got a really camp sense of humour.”

Delays during one of the film’s night shoots pushed Jagger’s scenes back into the early hours of the morning. “I had to go to his caravan and say, ‘Mick, I’m sorry but we’re running late.’ It was about four in the morning, he looked quite old and tired, and he stared at himself in the mirror and said: ‘Oh look at that face. It’s wretched. You can’t shoot me now!’ I remember saying, ‘Oh Mick, you look absolutely fantastic.’ I thought, ‘I’m such a phoney!’ Because he did look very tired. But I knew if I gave into his ego, I’d be sunk and I’d never get him on set.”

Given that he acts so rarely, what sort of role is likely to appeal? “One that sparks something in you,” says Jagger. “If it makes you think: ‘I can take this character and bring him to life. I can make him interesting or amusing.’ You don’t wanna be playing yourself, or too close to yourself. I’ve turned that down.”

He never had the movie career that his friend David Bowie did. Then again, he wasn't the solo entity that Bowie was: he had the old ball-and-chain to carry around, or the Rolling Stones as they're known. In the mid-1990s, Jagger hatched the idea of a comedy concert movie that would intersperse live footage of the band with scripted scenes showing two devoted Stones fans, to be played by Brad Pitt and Ben Stiller, clambering to see their idols at any cost. Jagger brought Stiller and Judd Apatow in to pitch the film at a band meeting. In Apatow's telling, Keith Richards was the stumbling block. Whenever Ronnie Wood expressed enthusiasm for making the film, said Apatow, Richards would shoot him down: "And 'oo are you, Alfred 'itchcock?"

'Mick can convey emotions without doing much. Most of his acting is done with his voice rather than his face'

Around five years ago, Jagger let it be known within the industry that he was looking for a "last" movie outing. He got his wish with the small but memorable role of a millionaire art collector with a sinister agenda in The Burnt Orange Heresy, a sly, slippery thriller shot on Lake Como. How did it feel to be acting again? "Er, well it was a bit odd to be honest," says Jagger. "I hadn't done any for ages. I was like: 'Oh. Um. Yes. Acting. Let's think now. How do we do this?' I once asked Jack Nicholson, 'When you build a character, where do you start?' He said, 'His sex life.'" He gives an amused little snort.

Mapping out the background of a character has usually helped. “It may not necessarily fit with the script but it’s good to have. Otherwise you’re just saying the lines. And you don’t wanna just say the lines. Well, you can, but it’s better if you know what sort of person he is. I made notes about whether the guy was married, what his schooling was like. Was he a crook? Did he like rugby? The usual stuff. It’s all quite funny but if you’re going to do a job, you might as well do it properly.”

The film's director Giuseppe Capotondi can attest to that. "Mick really did his homework," he tells me. "He said, 'Maybe the character should speak with a Chelsea accent but from the days before Chelsea became posh, back when it was still working class.' That all came from him. He also spoke to a few of his gallerist friends to understand how the market works."

One scene, in which Jagger flips from affable to intimidating in the space of a single line, suggests that he would have been a natural at Pinter. “That’s very good, isn’t it?” agrees Capotondi. “He managed to change tone there, all while sitting down and smoking his electronic cigarette. He’s very effective. Mick can convey emotions without doing much. Most of his acting is done with his voice rather than his face. It can be giggly then very deep. He uses it as an instrument and that’s a plus for any actor.”

What sort of presence was he on set? “He was very humble, maybe because he felt a bit out of his depth. Before we started, he said, ‘I give my best in the afternoon. Can I do all my scenes then?’ I told him: ‘Mick, we only have four days with you! We can’t only shoot in the afternoon!’ I watched him getting off his boat and coming to the villa at seven in the morning, and he looked a bit grumpy. But the moment he reached the set he was perfect.”

Did he talk about this being his final role? “He was saying, ‘I’m getting older. I don’t have much time.’” How does it feel to have directed possibly the last ever Jagger film? “Oh God, that’s a big responsibility,” he laughs. “I hope he does another one. I’m sure he will. He’s just busy with the day job.”

Indeed, tickets have just gone on sale for the Rolling Stones' 60th anniversary European tour, which begins in June; seven weeks in, Jagger will turn 79. "We're working on the new stage, which I hope is gonna look nice," he says. "I'm looking forward to touring Europe and speaking lots of different languages, even though I don't know what I'm talking about. We're just working out which songs we're gonna do. It doesn't seem very long since we finished doing the US so I'm up for it and ready for it."

He and Richards have even been working on new material. “Yeah, we’ve been doing some banging around. It’s been fun.” What he might consider “banging around”, others would put in more exalted terms. Pemberton is among them. Asked how he feels to have written a song with Mick Jagger, he says: “It’s like I convinced Picasso to come round and paint my front room.” – Guardian

Slow Horses is on Apple TV+ from Friday