There is a high likelihood that, if you reside in the United States, it’s been a while since you’ve thought about Russell Brand. Seven years ago, the British comedian, actor and writer brought his brand of big-haired troublemaking to our screens both large and small, in a manner that felt like the beginning of something huge. So where the hell did he go?
Brand first hosted the MTV VMAs in 2008, after his breakout role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and immediately caused a furor after he used the spotlight to refer to George W. Bush as a “retarded cowboy,” as well as make fun of the Jonas Brothers’ pro-celibacy stance. Nevertheless, he was invited to hand out Moonmen again in 2009 and 2012, and found himself with his own Comedy Central stand-up special, as well as starring roles in Get Him to the Greek (2010), Despicable Me (2010), Arthur (2011, in a role New York Magazine described as “career-killing”), The Tempest (2011), Hop (2011), and (let’s just forget this one ever happened) Rock of Ages (2012). Arguably, though, Brand is best-remembered (stateside, at least) in the role of Katy Perry’s husband.
The couple’s 27-month marriage was a tabloid dream from the get-go. After their 2010 wedding in India — the basis for Perry’s performance of “Not Like the Movies” at the Grammys three months later — Marie Claire called them “one of Hollywood’s hottest pairings.” By the time Brand had famously broken up with Perry via text and filed for divorce, the cover of US Weekly screamed “MARRIED TO A CRAZY MAN” instead.
There is an assumption for many people on this side of the Atlantic that Brand’s disappearance is related to the fact that he was only famous because of Katy; that once those rings came off, his career died because he could no longer ride her coattails. (“Now he doesn’t have Katy Perry, he’s just a nobody,” we hear at the start of his Brand: A Second Coming documentary.) Others suggest that his films just never did well enough at the box office to keep him in business.
The truth is far more complex — and far more interesting.
It is true that the consistently unfiltered Brand is a difficult prospect to sell to American audiences. His distinctly European flamboyance is off-putting for conservatives, as is the sexually crude wordplay he favors (which has also landed him in hot water in his native England). His tendency toward verbose flourishes can be read by American audiences as pretentious and self-indulgent. It’s also true that when one tries to squeeze Brand into any kind of structured format, he is rarely able to shine — as FX found out when they gave him a chat show, Brand X, which lasted just two seasons.
The real root of Brand’s absence from our screens has less to do with ratings than it does with his own relationship with guilt, fame and spirituality. The key turning point for Brand was a trip to Africa on behalf of Comic Relief in 2013. Having spent days witnessing dire poverty and suffering, surrounded by AIDS orphans, he returned to the opulence of Hollywood life and declared: “Oh my f–king God, I’m living this life that’s the very thing I detest: vapid, vacuous celebrity.”
The turnaround was fast. In 2013, Brand guest-edited The New Statesman — an award-winning British publication concerned with politics and current affairs. Shortly afterwards, he appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, an equally stuffy and intellectually minded television show. The interview caused adoration and outrage in equal measure from the British public, with Brand talking about his unwillingness to vote and his desire for revolution. The usually unflappable host, Jeremy Paxman, was visibly irritated by the whole thing.
When Brand talks about his personal philosophies, he does so from a place of experience. Before the Newsnight interview, his years of seeking peace and fulfillment through drug abuse and promiscuous sex were artfully and amusingly relayed in 2007’s foolishly titled but thought-provoking autobiography, My Booky Wook. The less-interesting followup, Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal (2010) saw Brand inching toward real international fame for the first time and seeking solace there, as well as in his new relationship with Perry. “For Katy,” the book’s dedication reads. “This is my past. You are my future.” (Another example of Brand throwing himself into his choices of the moment with absolute fervor).
Post-divorce, and post-Hollywood, Brand plunged into figuring out where to go next. By 2014, he had concluded, very vocally, that the answer for him lay in a somewhat jarring combination of spiritual and political activism. In the book he released that year, Revolution, he writes: “The solution is not fame or money or any transient adornment of the individual. The only revolution that can really change the world is the one in your own consciousness, and mine has already begun.”
In an interview to promote the book, Brand told The Financial Times (of all places) that he wasn’t “interested in making money any more” — a truth demonstrated by his refusal to take the $20 million from Katy Perry that he was legally entitled to from their divorce. “I think an economic ideology is oppositional to the spiritual ideologies that are what we need to adopt if we’re to save our planet and humankind,” he said. “Capitalism… prevents us from seeing that we’re all connected.”
In the 2014 documentary, Russell Brand: A Second Coming, he asserts his view of fame and fortune in a manner that is blunt: “Fame, power and money is bullsh-t,” he says. “I’ve now seen what happens if you make money in Hollywood. It’s a pretend world. Nothing’s real.”
Since he disappeared from America, Brand has been off trying to make himself useful. For five years now, he has been campaigning to get drug addiction treated as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. He counsels drug addicts in his spare time. He has two documentaries on the subject available on Netflix (From Addiction to Recovery and End the Drugs War) and he has offered expert testimony to the UK government on the subject.
In addition, there are the social and political commentaries Brand disperses on his The Trews YouTube channel, a perfect outlet for him to vent and inform in a time when 62 percent of American adults access news through social media. Remarkably, Brand named his show “The True News” three years before “fake news” became a thing.
Last year, Brand returned to movies after a three-year break. It’s a move accompanied — probably not coincidentally — by the birth of his first child. He appeared in Trolls and Army of One (alongside Nicolas Cage). This year, he will return to his Dr. Nefario role in Despicable Me 3.
Undoubtedly, though, Brand’s years of chasing fulfillment via fame and glamor are very much over. These days, living in the British countryside, he finds personal satisfaction in simplicity (“I’m so much happier over the course of the day to see one or two people and a few chickens,” he told ES Magazine last year) and professional fulfillment through his continuing analyses of how politics affects the proletariat. In addition to his public ponderings on spirituality and the meaning of life, he has returned to school to study religion and global politics.
Brand is that most unusual of figures — a man who succeeded and then walked away from blinding opportunities to give personal growth priority over wealth. In an age of reality television, when being famous for fame’s sake has more allure than ever, he offers a valuable alternative.