Andy Gotts has photographed countless Hollywood A-listers, from Robert De Niro to Meryl Streep. He shares some stories

Words: Jonathan Whiley

Photographer Andy Gotts is telling me about the time he nearly killed George Clooney’s pet duck. He was shooting Clooney at his palatial villa on Lake Como, having been introduced by Clooney’s friend – Brad Pitt. “He is a superstar,” says Gotts. “I shot him at Pinewood Studios. He opened the door and lowered his sunglasses and said, ‘it’s Brad Pitt’. We got on really well and at the end he said, ‘what can I do for you’ and I said, ‘well if you have any mates…”

He went into the hallway and came back and said, ‘there’s a phone call for you’. It was George Clooney; inviting me to Lake Como for the weekend.”

Gotts arrived at Clooney’s 23-room villa – “it was me, him and a chef” – and as Clooney scouted for a room with a white backdrop, Gotts went to collect his equipment. “I walked up the stairs and took the corner too sharply and my tripod hit his bookshelf and then landed on one of the ducks. I had this body of a duck and I literally put it behind the sofa. At this point, Clooney appeared on the banister and there was a quack behind the sofa. He said, ‘what’s George doing behind there?’. It was his dazed pet duck, George, and I claimed innocence but I nearly killed it.”

Gotts has some brilliant stories and makes for entertaining, candid company. We’re in a corner of Manetta’s bar at Flemings hotel in Mayfair – Gotts is friends with the hotel’s managing director, Henrik, and does many of his shoots here. In a career spanning 33 years (and counting), he has photographed nearly 7,5000 actors.

“When it was my 30th year Stephen Fry wrote an article and the headline was ‘Andy Gotts has photographed more famous people, more celebrities, than Annie Leibovitz, Lord Snowdon and David Bailey combined.”

What’s more, we’re talking A-list; the crème de la crème of Tinseltown including the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, the late Heath Ledger (the last photograph before Ledger died) and Kate Winslet, who he’s snapped more than 20 times. 

His current exhibition at 45 Park Lane, ‘And the winner is… LA LA LAND?’ is a showcase of his favourite portraits of actors that have won accolades from the BAFTAs to the Oscars. It’s hot on the heels of ‘Nemesis’, a recent exhibition at the Carlton Tower Jumeirah of every living actor who has been a Bond villain from Christopher Lee to Rami Malek (the latter was the last to agree after Gotts emailed him every month for two years).

So where it did all begin for Gotts? With Stephen Fry, aged 19. During a Q&A with Fry, who was handing out diplomas, Gotts – midway through a two-year photography course – spotted an opportunity.

“I put my hand up and asked if I could do a picture of him… he said yes if I was quick. I did 10 shots in 90 seconds and it changed my life. Stephen has got a break on his nose and through an absolute fluke, a shadow went over the break and so he loved the shot. He put a 10 x 8 on his mantelpiece and when his mate came over for Sunday dinner – Kenneth Branagh – he asked for my number.”

Before long Gotts arrived in Highgate to photograph Branagh and then wife Emma Thompson. “I parked the car and this irate man came out… I explained and he said I could park at his house under the condition I photographed him afterwards. It was Derek Jacobi.”

Three years later – in 1994 – Gotts had the idea for a project whereby he would photograph a famous person and ask them to be introduced to their best friend in the industry. It snowballed and became a nine-year project; Branagh would introduce him to Kevin Kline and Kline would introduce the entire cast of the play he was starring in at the time which included Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.  

“I try to shoot people in a way that they haven’t been shot before. My selling point is that I don’t edit my pictures. When you see my picture of Scarlett Johansson it’s unedited and likewise, Kate Moss. These are the only pictures released [of Moss] where she’s unedited. She gave me the best compliment ever, she got misty-eyed and said, ‘this is exactly how my daughter sees me’.”

Gotts says that the way he shoots – “no assistants, no hair and make-up – just me and a camera, that’s how it’s always been” – helps celebrities to relax. “I’ve got the ability to make people think that I don’t know what I’m doing. They think I’m a bumbling, stuttering fool. When I shot Julie Christie, she said ‘are you sure you’re a professional?.”

He says he has never been starstruck simply because every shoot has involved a famous name. “I grew up wanting to be an actor, so this is the nearest I can be to Hollywood without being in a movie.” He tells me about the time he flew out to photograph Clint Eastwood in California and after asking two elderly neighbours for directions, ended up giving them – plus a pet Afghan Hound –  a lift to Eastwood’s home. After they had left, Eastwood turned to Gotts and said, ‘you do know who those two women are, don’t you?’. Gotts was oblivious. It was Doris Day and Margot Fonteyn.

He particularly loves ‘old’ Hollywood. One of his standout memories is photographing Kirk Douglas in LA and another is shooting Tony Curtis. He had been trying to do so for nine years before he found the phone number for a horse range in Las Vegas owned by Tony’s wife, Jilly. Curtis agreed to be photographed despite not feeling well. “He said he would honour our commitment if I could ‘make him look like an icon one last time’.

Remembering his nickname, American Prince, Gotts decided to paint the flag of America on his face. “For an hour and a half, I was painting whilst listening to stories about the Ratpack, Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe… I probably took 12 shots and he said, ‘thank you for bothering with me’. I flew back and emailed Jilly one photograph where he had a little sparkle in both eyes. She replied straight away, which was unusual given it was three in the morning, and said Tony had collapsed and was in hospital but she would take the picture to cheer him up. Two days went past and she rang and told me she had taken the picture and he said, ‘Jilly, this is the best picture ever taken of me’. He died that afternoon; it was the last ever photograph and his favourite.”

And the winner is… LA LA LAND? is at 45 Park Lane until May 16.

Gotts on…

De Niro
“I shot De Niro in London and Pacino at his home in Beverly Hills the same week. During the shoot with De Niro I said to him, ‘do you ever get pissed off with that ‘you looking at me’ impression people do from Taxi Driver? He said ‘have you see Pacino do an impression of me? So the shot is De Niro doing an impression of Pacino doing an impression of De Niro.”

Michael Caine
“I shot him for my first ever book in 2005. We stayed in touch and I read this thing online where a photographed asked him to replicate the famous David Bailey picture from the ‘60s with the Harry Palmer glasses [his character in The Ipcress File]. He said he would never do it. Two years later I arranged a shoot and rang his wife Shakira and asked her to put them in his coat pocket without telling him. At the shoot I said ‘wouldn’t it be great to do that famous picture one day.’ He said, ‘Andy, if I ever do it, it will be for you if I ever have the glasses on me. I said, ‘ah funny, you should say that…”

Barry Manilow
Barry f****** Manilow. It still feels like a weird dream. It was at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. I was shown to a room and I waited and waited. Then this girl came in, dressed in black, hair in a pony tail and bright red lips, with an iphone taking a video of my lighting and camera. About 15 minutes later, three more – exactly the same. Then a truckload of Mr Manilow’s clothes from LA. Then a food trolley came in, then a dietician weighing out food, then a guy humming in the corner who was apparently in his guru. It was a circus. They all stood in single file and bowed their heads as he put his phone in a dock to play his own music. He said, ‘dance!’; he wanted entertainment as he gets bored at shoots. Everyone is dancing and he asked where my screens were and wanted more backlit lighting. I said, ‘Mr Manilow, this isn’t the ‘70s, that isn’t my style.’ After about nine shots, he walked off.”