James Jagger, Mick’s Son: “I’m Not a Rabble-Rouser”

The actor and musician on talking about the ’70s with dad, Martin Scorsese and his new music-themed HBO show Vinyl.


It’s officially appointment viewing season again on television. The People v. O.J. Simpson is carrying the water cooler talk on the Internet, and, beware, Game of Thrones is coming. Meanwhile, Vinyl, the most credential-laden of prestige dramas this spring, lands on HBO this Sunday, February 14. Created by Martin Scorsese (who directed the pilot), Terence Winter, Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger (who was the subject along with the Rolling Stones of Scorsese’s documentary Shine a Light), the period piece follows a record executive (Bobby Cannavale) as he tries to navigate both the sale of his label and the punk-rock scene exploding in New York in 1973. One of those punks is named Kip, and he’s played by James Jagger, Mick’s son with Jerry Hall. When he bounds onstage during a show, Stones fans might feel the light chill of déjà vu. Not that Kip’s noisy, antisocial rock is meant to seduce, or even attract, an audience in the same way. When the A&R assistant he’s seeing (Juno Temple) asks him what he cares about, Kip replies, memorably, “Fighting. F—ing. Nothing.”

The pilot is almost two hours long. It is so cinematic. And that last scene… It really makes you want to see what comes next. At the same time, it’s one of the cheapest Martin Scorsese movies ever made. [laughs]

Your character is a little bit of an anarchist, a little bit of a nihilist. Was it hard to get into his head? It was definitely a process, and it was definitely fun to play. I don’t think it was super hard to get into his head per se, but there were some elements that were unpleasant. He’s got a huge amount of pain; it can be a little tiring to wear that. The thing I found was that when you’ve got to portray someone cold and unpleasant, I ended up feeling bad for the other actors I was playing against. I have to go give Juno a hug at the end of the day. To be like, “All’s fair in love and war …”

“—and acting.” Exactly.

Kip seems pure, like the effects of the heroin he shoots. There’s a lot more to him. He puts up a very strong front, but I feel like as the season progresses the character really does have a bit of a revolution. He’s definitely pure, but he’s kind of burnt as well—there’s a kind of jadedness, too.

Did you base him on anyone? Not as I’m playing him, but there’re certainly bits and pieces I took from people of that era. In particular, maybe… I dunno, I identify with Richard Hell [the American punk musician] at times. But Kip is definitely his own person. Musically, there are other influences.

I read that you wrote the songs Kip’s band, The Nasty Bits, plays? Yes. One of them is played in the pilot, when we have a lot of s–t thrown at us onstage. [laughs]

Does it sound anything like the music you write? With my band? I wouldn’t say so. We really tried to write something that fit with the cultural backdrop of that time. I’m no longer playing with those guys, but we used to play around a bit more with fantastical, esoteric things rather than kitchen-sink drama, which is what the Nasty Bits play with.

Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO.

When you’re performing onstage as Kip, with your makeup, you do resemble your father quite a bit. I got asked in an interview whether I try to play up my likeness to him. [laughs] Yes, I’m using my acting prowess to play up my likeness to my father, it was nothing to do with the fact that I’m his son. I thought that was quite funny.

Did he have any insights into the scene to share with you? He was really open about that time. I riffed with him about New York during that period. He had a few good anecdotes, but he’s also really into his history. He really had a grasp on what was going on politically and socially. It was all really helpful for me.

Your comment recently that you prefer The Kinks to the Rolling Stones has caused a lot of controversy on the Internet. It was a totally tongue-in-cheek comment! I was asked whether I prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. That’s the question I’m asked constantly. So my response was flatly, with a straight face, “I prefer the Kinks.” You know? Like, I don’t know …

And now everyone’s misconstrued your joke. I guess so. It’s just a ridiculous thing. I love all three bands. Why should you have to choose? Why do you have to be a cat or a dog person, they’re both great animals.

How did you get involved with Project Zero? I started working with them three years ago. I thought it was a such an exciting new way to approach marine conservation.

Now you’re on the board of directors. Is it in your nature to organize and cheerlead? You seem pretty laid back. No, it’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m not a rabble-rouser in any way.

Right, you’ve always kept a low profile. With this role—with your father and Martin Scorsese involved—you must’ve known your cover would be blown. Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed anonymity. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Marty. I don’t know anyone who would say no, despite any weird moments I might experience on public transport.