Sharon Stone hits our Zoom call at a million miles an hour; she is up and out of the trap the moment I admit her, dazzling and unpredictable, ecstatic, then cheeky, then moved to almost tears, then furious, then regaling me with celebrity anecdotes so choice, I itch to pass them on.

It’s her 63rd birthday, which she’s celebrating at home, in Los Angeles, taking receipt of “all these incredibly cute videos! It’s been such a Covid year, so you don’t really get to see your buddies. Then to wake up… late… and everybody has really gone all out, sending me these hilarious videos. I’ve been laughing till I’m crying. Love! So much love, coming in!”

There was the comedic actress who “sent me her singing as a unicorn, you know” (Stone grins movie-star megawatts), and the gay couple who dressed themselves, their toddler and their dog “like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz” (Stone guffaws), and the actor from Ratched, the Netflix show in which Stone is currently starring, who “recorded himself talking to me about how I’ve been like a mom to him, and what I’ve done, and helped him in his life” (Stone pauses to collect herself, to press index fingers delicately into tear ducts), and (Stone grows hushed, awed) a “girlfriend in Paris sent me her daughter, who I had this weird psychic moment with, when she was four. They were living in Florida, and out of the blue, I panicked and called her and was like, ‘Check on her! Check on her!’ And her daughter had fallen in the pool and was drowning! What’s that behind you?”

Uh? “Is that a painting, or is it… flowers? Black… something? In a white vase?”

I twist around to check my background, can see a Home Hub, some wilting (yellow) mimosa and a decorative bowl subsumed by flailing charging devices. “It’s beautiful!” says Stone. I, none the wiser, thank her.

“I was like, ‘I have stuff on the floor! I should cover up the crap on the floor!’” She gets up, disappears from view, then reappears, carrying a small watercolor canvas (in the manner of someone who painted it herself, which I think she did), which she positions in front of a pile of deeply inoffensive domestic detritus. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I have garbage over there!’”

Stone settles back down, decides she’s too hot and removes a light, gauzy knitted layer, to reveal a black sleeveless camisole top, finely honed arms, immaculate cleavage.

Because I know what you’re wondering. How’s Sharon Stone holding up?

Million-Dollar Legs

This famed beauty, this old-style sex icon, who first came to international attention in the most shocking, provocative way imaginable, in 1992, as Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, a gorgeous, sexually predatory serial killing psychologist who seduces the detective pursuing her (Michael Douglas’s Nick Curran), and undoes both him and the film’s extensive audience during her own interrogation scene, by uncrossing and then recrossing her legs while not wearing any pants.

Twelve actresses had turned down the part before Douglas relented and allowed her to audition. “He didn’t want to test with me. Hey, I was a nobody compared with him, and this was such a risky movie,” she recalls. If Stone subsequently proved herself to be an actor of unquestionable talent (41 nominations and 10 awards, among them a Golden Globe for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s Casino – speak to that), Basic Instinct set the dye on the definitive public perception of her. So here we are, nearly three decades later, contemplating a woman made famous not just for her staggering looks but for the sexuality her breakthrough performance injected into the broader cultural moment, given which… How’s she holding up?

Oh, you know: completely, disturbingly beautiful. I know convention would have me qualify this with some backhanded disclaimer like “for her age”, but I can’t. It’s not relevant. Stone is knockout by any metric – glowy-skinned, vertiginously cheekboned – and although I fail in my efforts not to study her face for telltale signs of the face-lift she always swears she hasn’t had… I find nothing.

I know she’s had surgery on her breasts, mind you; surgery that was supposed to be merely reconstructive, following the removal in 2001 of tumors which, while benign, were “gigantic, bigger than my breast alone”, only she woke from the operation to discover her surgeon had “thought that I would look better with bigger, ‘better’ boobs. When I was unbandaged, I discovered that I had a full cup-size bigger breasts, ones that he said ‘go better with your hip size’. He had changed my body without my knowledge or consent.”

I know this because I read it in Stone’s new memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, a glorious, rogue, raw account of a life lived first in near poverty in small-town, Amish-adjacent, hillbilly Pennsylvania, then as a model in Eighties New York, who roller-skated between castings “to get the fat off”, then as the star of Basic Instinct, a woman who titillated, bedazzled and disrupted Hollywood.

“When I was unbandaged, I discovered that I had a full cup-size bigger breasts.... He had changed my body without my knowledge or consent.”

The Beauty of Living Twice, then, is the official business of this interview. It starts with Stone – in 2001, aged 43 – lying on a hospital bed, being informed by a doctor she’s experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage: bleeding into her brain. She is in agonizing pain, facing death, scared and lonely… Also furious, because the doctor is handsome, yet Stone is in no shape to flirt.

It rattles off from this point, back through her family history. An elegant, wealthy, Schiaparelli-clad paternal grandmother, who lost all her money when her husband, Stone’s grandfather, died, leaving a fortune which she, as a woman, could not inherit; a predatory, abusive maternal grandfather, whom Stone’s mother, Dot, escaped by marrying Stone’s father, Joe, when Dot was 16, but who would abuse Stone’s younger sister, Kelly, in her presence when Stone was eight and Kelly five.

At school, she was both too bright and too strange (“an oddball”) to have much fun. Teen beauty pageants lead to modeling – although only after her older brother Michael’s arrest and imprisonment for drug dealing makes Stone’s parents think their daughter might after all be safer in Eighties New York, which leads to a part in a Woody Allen film, which leads to Hollywood, which leads to the brain bleed and stroke that nearly killed her but not quite…

All of which leads to today. Sort of.

No Holds Barred

The Beauty of Living Twice is a rambling affair, opaque at times – often for reasons of legal necessity – but so beautifully observed, you really don’t care. It’s filled with delicious turns of phrase, like (of Lela, the grandmother in Schiaparelli), “I thought she just hung the moon”; of a neighbor, “She is so nosy she would smell our farts to see what we had for lunch.” There’s lashings of celebrity gossip (the allegedly ghastly Steven Seagal tells Stone she’s standing in his chi). There’s even whimsical contemplation of the human condition. It is funny; it is shocking; it is good.

So I am both surprised, yet not, to learn Stone wrote it herself. Surprised because I thought all celebrities got their memoirs ghosted; not surprised because there is something so personal to it, no one else could possibly have written it.

Sorry if that sounds patronizing, I tell her.

“It’s not patronizing! Why would you know that I could write a sentence?”

How nervous is Stone about the response to the… wanton rawness of her book? As honest as Stone is about herself, she’s equally honest (when her lawyers allow) about other people: famous people, industry people, family. It’s a grade of honesty that is not always flattering.

“Well, there’s tough things to it. Because there’s a voice in there that’s scary to people. That tiger! That raw tiger! As the Dalai Lama has always said to me, ‘A tiger never apologizes.’ So you have to be unapologetic in the way that you approach this type of truth. He told me that I’m a sort of particular thing that’s both destruction and creation. And that the impact of the destruction that comes with my creation is always going to be tiger-like, and always going to knock people around, and that is the point. And that was the point of me living when I died [after the stroke]. He says that it causes impact each time I do something like that, and that I’m going to have this kind of whiplash effect… I’ve been very threatened [because of] this story.”

By whom? “I can’t say.”

You’ve been threatened recently and specifically because of the contents of the book? “I’m not able to discuss that. But I can tell you that in my life, I have been threatened and threatened and threatened and threatened.”

As honest as Stone is about herself, she’s equally honest (when her lawyers allow) about other people. It’s a grade of honesty that is not always flattering.

I tell Stone how unthinkable this is from my perspective, as a consumer of her work and her fame; how I first became aware of her when Basic Instinct was released, how she seemed to me (aged 19) to embody nothing but strength, sexual confidence, glamour, success, and how inspiring that felt to a young woman. How could someone that apparently powerful also feel threatened?

“Imagine how people treated me as a person after that movie came out.”

Despite Basic Instinct’s commercial success, Stone was derided in Hollywood on account of it, sneered at, dismissed – although her co-star, Michael Douglas, was not. “When I went to the Golden Globes as a nominee in 1993 and they called my name as a finalist, everyone laughed. It was really hard to be me after that movie came out,” Stone tells me now.

Why does she think people were so disdainful? “They probably thought I was the character. They wanted to believe I was the character.”

But they’re in the industry! They understand how acting works! “Easier to believe I was the character.”

Easier than to believe you’re talented? “Isn’t that always the case? It’s not like people run around telling women, ‘Congratulations, you’re so f***ing talented, I didn’t even imagine!’”

I think it’s especially hard for people if that woman is beautiful, I say. I reference a part of the book in which Stone talks about her aunt, Vonne, who had a tough experience of life, at least partly as a consequence of her beauty, and the way the world perceived her because of it. “There is a prejudice against real beauty,” Stone wrote of Vonne. “She was always coming from behind that.”

“My aunt was beautiful. So beautiful,” Stone says. Right, I say, but so are you, and you’ve presumably been subject to that sort of prejudice? Stone looks directly at me. “And you. ‘Look at you. You must not be smart. Look at you. You must not be able to accomplish. Look at you.’”

I feel embarrassed, flattered, sad. It shows.

“Exactly,” says Stone. “‘Look at you.’”

Getting into Character

Obviously I want to talk more about Basic Instinct. The film that made – and made so much trouble for – Sharon Stone 30 years ago still holds huge sway. It’s still watched, still served up as a casual reference point on sex and power; burned into whatever the cultural equivalent of our retinas is. I know from her book that Stone desperately wanted the part, that she’d pursued it doggedly.

Why? “Because I knew I could play it. I knew I had the intelligence to play the part. And I understood Michael [Douglas]. I met him a long time before. He immediately got into an argument with me. We almost got into a fistfight.” This, she tells me, was some years before Basic Instinct, at a time when Douglas was famous (“Oh my God, he’s been famous since he was born!”), although Stone was not.

“I was talking about another family that we both know, but he didn’t know I was intimately connected to this family. I said something about the son, and he’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s half the guy his dad is.’ And he just was furious, said something to me, and we were sitting in a big group. I looked at him, and I thought, ‘What?’ Because he just went at me! I said, ‘I think we should step outside.’”

You asked Michael Douglas out for a fight?

“Yeah! And he went, ‘I think we should.’ And there was, like, 20 people, and everybody was going, ‘Oooooooh!’ We went outside and I was like, ‘You don’t know me,’ and he’s like, ‘And you don’t know me.’ And we had this fantastic, you know, high school argument.”

Did you hit him? “I did not hit him.”

Could you have? “Yeah! I grew up in the country, with big brothers and a tough dad.”

What do you think he’d have done if you had? “He wouldn’t have hit me, but he probably would have sat me down, like, he probably would have physically handled me. I don’t think he would have hit me – but he would have probably thought, ‘I love her.’”

The upshot of this early skirmish was ready-made on-set chemistry. “We knew immediately how to push each other’s buttons. We had – we have – a beautiful relationship.”

“When I went to the Golden Globes as a nominee in 1993 and they called my name as a finalist, everyone laughed.”

Stone talks about the pantless interrogation scene: she says she was assured the shot would remain on the right side of propriety as it was filmed, and only realized during a screening that that was a moot point. “After we shot Basic Instinct, I got called in to see it. Not on my own with the director, as one would anticipate, given the situation that has given us all pause, so to speak, but with a room full of agents and lawyers, most of whom had nothing to do with the project. That was how I saw my vagina shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything – I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.’”

At the end of the screening, Stone slapped the director, Paul Verhoeven, across the face. “I don’t think anyone knew [how risqué the shot would end up seeming]. The videos were very fuzzy at the time, and I don’t think anyone knew till they had it.”

I tell Stone she strikes me as fearless. What else to make of a small-town girl who just knew, from an incredibly young age, she was destined to be a famous actress, who just went to New York to model, as a teenager, then just went to Hollywood, where she was initially perceived as not adequately sexy, not “f***able” enough to be hired, so remedied that by orchestrating a tactical Playboy shoot, using contacts she’d made attending a weekly fight night at the Playboy Mansion.

So is she fearless?

“No! Martin Scorsese said that I’m like John Ford, and I’m like, ‘John Ford?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, you’re afraid of everything, so you just face everything head on. You just throw yourself at everything.’ I think maybe that’s a little bit true. I used to have this friend, Brett, and he would say, ‘You’re like a Ferrari. You look good on the outside, but you break down every five miles.’ I think that’s more it. I think I go, and then I just fall apart, and then I go some more and kind of fall apart.”

“I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything – I just need you to remove your panties.’” At the end of the screening, Stone slapped the director, Paul Verhoeven, across the face.

I know from the book that one of the points at which Stone fell apart was when she lost primary custody of Roan, the son she adopted with Phil Bronstein, a journalist, the second of her two husbands (the first being producer Michael Greenburg), whom she divorced in 2004. It took Stone a long time to recover from the 2001 stroke and brain bleed, seven years in all, during which time Hollywood dumped her unceremoniously. (In an earlier interview, Stone described that experience as like being “thrown off the bullet train”, adding that regaining her acting career required her to “crawl up a hill of broken glass, get back on the train that’s going a million miles an hour, and work my way from the cattle car up”.) And her marriage fell apart.

Her second divorce, and the loss of her son, are among the fuzzier parts of the book. There’s just a reference to the pain it caused. Now she tells me she’d planned to start “a new marriage and a new baby and a happy life. I’m going to let go of Hollywood and Sharon Stone!”, but instead nearly died, got divorced and “lost custody of my kid. Yeah.”

She’d always wanted to adopt, she tells me, but then, “I did this other thing, of trying to have children.” She had three miscarriages at five and a half months, the last one “was a multiple pregnancy. They thought I had five multiple pregnancies, and I kept losing them. One after the next after the next, heartbeat would go. And the final baby died, and I could feel it and I knew it.”

On her way home from the hospital, “I got a call from the adoption attorney that he had a baby that turned out to be my son, Roan. ‘There’s a baby and he’s due in six weeks and do you want him?’” Because she was still being buffeted by her own pregnancy hormones when she collected Roan, she felt almost as if she’d given birth to him herself. “So to have him taken away from me…”

Roan was three when Stone lost prime custody. They’ve since reconciled; he, now 20, lives with Stone, along with the two other boys she subsequently adopted, Laird, 15, and Quinn, 14. “It’s been hard for both of us… We’ve done a lot of re-parenting exercises, therapy. We’ve done a lot of the work that we needed to do. I love him so much.”

Advice from the Top

What else? Stone is a Buddhist, which explains her capacity to casually name-drop the Dalai Lama. She’s given up trying to sustain links with her troubled brother Michael, whose drug addiction and convictions have provoked periodic headlines through the decades, and whose son – Stone’s nephew, Colin Stone – died of an overdose in 2014, aged 22.

What’s her and Michael’s relationship status? “Non-existent,” she says. “He’s gone too far. We’ve tried. There’ve been good years and bad years and good years and bad years. But he’s in a period now where he feels that because my mother had him, she owes him every single thing she has. So she’s with me now. He’s busy being himself. Every family, every family, has somebody… special in it.”

And she tells me that, as of around a month ago, she has “no representation”, no acting agent, for the first time in her career. I get the impression she sacked whoever they were. She certainly describes the actor-agent relationship as “very demeaning. I haven’t had an experience in there where I feel, ‘Thank you for all of that support. Thanks for all that.’” But then, she says, that’s Hollywood.

“They’re not interested in you. You are the pawn or, if you get bigger, you’re the knight or the bishop, but you are never going to be the queen or the king… I’ve been friends with big stars like Jack Nicholson – and they never stop. They never stop on him; they don’t ever stop on anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, if they can put you behind the eight ball and tell you that you don’t have whatever it is, make you feel like you must constantly reprove yourself, you’re not It, something is wrong with you; that even on the set you’re just somehow not cutting it… They’re going to tell you that, because that allows you to be less in control and more needy and more willing to be less, accept less, be more compliant.”

“You asked Michael Douglas out for a fight?” “Yeah!”

Stone is single. I know she’s dabbled with dating apps, that she once signed up with Bumble, who blocked her account because they assumed it was fake. And now? “I don’t know if I’m a person who’s going to get to have a relationship in my life,” she tells me, “but I hope that I am.”

She’s tried online again, found it “a cool learning experience, during Covid, where you really know you can’t get together: it’s a freedom. There’s a special kind of intimacy, a nice way to talk. I learned a little bit more about how men think, and how they really are, and how their intimate selves work.” But those conversations didn’t become full relationships? “No.” Might others, in the future? She says she doesn’t know.

We call it quits; we’ve overrun by half an hour on our allotted time. I tell Sharon Stone I don’t want to take up any more of her precious birthday (true, although I also mean I want to go to sleep; she’s on LA time, but it’s way past my London bedtime), and she tells me she’s enjoyed talking.

Then, “I see you, Polly,” she says. “I really see you.”

Which is strange, because – even though Stone is, in that moment and with that phrase, articulating a nonsensical, empty, pseudo-psychological notion, a flannelly babbly bit of non-think, the kind to which I usually stringently object, because: what does it mean? “I see you”? Really? – I nonetheless feel seen by Sharon Stone, and it is lovely.

The Beauty of Living Twice, by Sharon Stone, is out now

Polly Vernon is an interviewer for The Times of London and the author of Hot Feminist