Interview: Jacqueline Bisset
An international star of the first rank whose mantle of honors includes everything from a Golden Globe to the Légion d’honneur, Jacqueline Bisset has distinguished over five decades’ worth of productions with her sophisticated glamour and finely honed craftsmanship, her performances growing in complexity and power with cumulative experience. She’s enjoying a particularly verdant career phase at present: the last two months have seen her play opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in Here and Now, Nick Nolte in Head Full of Honey, and Ron Perlman in Asher, and her era-defining blockbuster Bullitt made a welcome return to theaters 50 years after its release. While in New York for the Tribeca premiere of Here and Now, Ms. Bisset took time to share her recollections of an astonishing galley of collaborators, for most of whom no first name is necessary (Polanski, Truffaut, Huston, Chabrol), and to reflect on the mechanics of screen acting and the intangibles of stardom.
Dancing on the Edge (2013)
I understand that you wanted to be a dancer initially. You studied ballet.
I did study ballet. I was very attracted to ballet. I wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t have the body for it, but I was graceful and I had great passion for it. And my mother encouraged me. We lived in a very small cottage, thatched cottage, and because of the low roof, the wooden roof, and—the acoustics were amazing, so almost anything she played, music-wise, on the record player sounded fantastic. So the music was very much important, and I only realized the sounds of that cottage when I took the same records to another place, and they sounded quite thin. But she used to play classical music, she taught me how to listen to music, and ballet was a fantastic dream. I’d had the luck to watch Margot Fonteyn, who for me was the greatest dancer I’ve ever seen. Not only because she was a great dancer, but she was also a very good actress and an extremely feminine woman. And a mind-boggling beauty. And she hadn’t danced with Nureyev yet at the point when I saw most of this, and she had partners who were good dancers, but nothing compared to what happened when Nureyev came into her life. But I mean, she was astounding.
And we had a lot of books at home. No entertainment, no television—never had television until I was 18, I think, or 17, my father agreed to have television. But we had a book-filled house, and I had a few ballet books, and I went regularly to classes. I was never trained on any professional level, but I was really obsessed. I used to dream about it, and I would choreograph—actually, quite brilliantly, I think—at night, without being able of course to do the steps. But it was a beautiful thing. Covent Garden had the most magical theater.
Did studying dance give you any tools? Confidence performing, or poise?
I don’t know. A combination of an English upbringing, a certain amount of discipline—not too much freedom, in a way, but lots of encouragement in terms of the books that were lying around. I was encouraged to read, but not to a big degree. I mean, there were just a lot of books around. And I was interested in art, and I was interested in photography without knowing what it was, and none of this was formalized, it was just—I was a pretty average child, I wasn’t really exceptional. I just had a grace. I had a graceful understanding of music and I had a sense of rhythm. An unusual sense of rhythm. My mother did also.
Your mother was French, right?
She was French and English.
Did you go to the cinema as a child?
No, I didn’t go to the cinema. I went to see The Mountain of Everest, Snow White, Eugene Onegin—that was about it, from the time I was zero till I was about 15. At about 15, I saw a few English films—The L-Shaped Room and a few films like that, The Man Who Knew Too Much. One or two of Doris Day’s movies. And then, on Thursdays, my father and mother would go to the cinema and see foreign films. And I used to watch them: my mother would dress in a nice outfit, which was not normally the case. She would put on high heels, and they would go to the cinema. And I think I was probably about 15 and a half or something, and they said, “Would you like to come?”, and I started to see a few foreign films. And then at 16 and a half, 17, I went to the French Lycée for two years, and saw all those incredible—we used to skip school on Tuesdays and go to a cinema that had French films, and Italian films. And there I discovered all those incredible Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.
People you’d later work with. Truffaut, Chabrol…
Yes! I didn’t watch Chabrol at that time, because I heard he made movies that were quite strong. There wasn’t a horror aspect to them, exactly, but I didn’t see a lot of them. But I saw Rohmer, Pasolini, Visconti, Fellini, Bergman…Ingmar Bergman! And I thought—“What is this? What is this thing? Why do these incredible women come round corners and suddenly [appear] in front of the camera silently, mysteriously? What is that?” No understanding of it at all. And I saw Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, and I saw La Strada with Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn… And I didn’t dare express to myself, even, what I was feeling, but it was a great gift. I had a very annoying French boyfriend, and always after Bergman films he would say to our little group of people: “Now, Jacqueline’s going to tell us what happened in the movie.” And I understood nothing. And I would be mortified!
I didn’t speak French until much later; I was at the Lycée doing English exams, and the only parts that were in French were the philosophy classes, where I understood nothing, practically. A teacher said, “Go and sell peanuts on the corner, Miss Bisset.” [Laughs] But, you know, it was very exciting. And I just hit in at the most incredible time in England, when the whole thing was changing—it was an unbelievable time! Of course I didn’t know that it was an unbelievable time, I just knew I was having an amazing time. The music, the change in fashion, the ’60s! Being in London, seeing how things were changing: the visuals, the furniture, people’s behavior—all the stuffiness seemed to go out of it. All that English stuffiness, which I don’t detest, but as a full-time thing it was boring. And it just shifted and shifted and shifted.
Jules and Jim I enjoyed a lot. But I felt Truffaut was always slightly annoyed by people who liked Jules and Jim.
Why do you think that was?
I could sense that he was slightly annoyed by, maybe, the facility of [how they liked] it? The situation: Catherine [Jeanne Moreau] is with one and then the other, and there’s this love story that’s maybe generalized… And that slightly restrained my pleasure in having enjoyed Jules and Jim, because I felt slightly reprimanded, in a way, for my facile emotional response. I just loved Jeanne Moreau; I was completely crazy about her. I met her a few times, and the dimension of where she went in her silence and her smile—the occasional smile she would give to the audience—was like an incredible gift. She didn’t do it often…And then of course her movies were filmed so beautifully. They filmed her with beauty, subtext, power—dream on, Jacqueline! [Laughs]
Tell me about working with Truffaut on Day for Night (1973).
Well, my French was very average, so I was intimidated. I was thrilled to be invited into this whole thing, because he was the director whose work I probably knew the most of. And my language was—I was absolutely stressed out, because of not necessarily remembering the words, but [just keeping up]. In France when you shoot, there’s a tendency to go very fast, and often the crews know the director and they’ve worked together before, and you’re coming into a world where a lot of people know each other and have a shorthand, and you don’t know the shorthand, so it’s not easy. I had that feeling on Day for Night, I had it on the Chabrol movie [La Cérémonie, 1995], I had it on several things I did in France. You feel like you’re a step behind. So, I’ve found that your voice goes up a few tones because you’re nervous, not in your normal register, and you’re not going to get a chance to do rehearsals, or barely. And that made me feel like an outsider. Less with Truffaut, a lot with Chabrol. I did a film with Philippe de Broca called Le Magnifique [The Man from Acapulco, 1973]. That was more lighthearted, but again, I had to do two different voices, and didn’t speak French, hardly. I don’t know, there’s always walls to climb. It never stops. I just did another role in a French film, and actually for the first time, I think my French has improved quite a lot, because I didn’t have that nightmarish fear of forgetting everything, and my voice did not go up where it goes when I’m nervous.
Is that the Ozon film, Double Lover?
No, it’s a film I did called Sol y Sombra, with a woman called Dominique Abel. And she’s quite a charming character, but she used to speak in three languages at once, which I found stressful, but the work was beautiful. You know, it’s a tiny budget film, but it’s a passion project. I enjoy those; I’m doing quite a lot of them. First of all, I felt that she really wanted me for the role. It had nothing to do with the casting list or anything like that, nothing to do with finances; purely that the person she wanted was me. She saw me in Under the Volcano , which she particularly liked. And I did another one [Magic Lantern] last year with an Iranian director, Amir Naderi, and that was, once again, placing myself in the hands of a director without any commercial aspirations whatsoever.
You really are, in the truest sense of the word, an international performer. Do you follow the work, or do you not want to be rooted in one place for long, and choose projects accordingly?
No, I follow the work! I follow what I can get that has a few words in it that I want to say, or has some thought in it, or some sphere of interest that appeals to me. I honestly reject a tremendous amount of what’s shown to me; I just don’t want to do it! I have no interest. If I were being offered an amazing part in some amazingly big movie, but it was an amazing part first, I would of course be interested to try it. But only with reservations, you know. The process for actresses is not an easy one, and I like working. I just know I have this very full sense of what I have yet to give, and I just try to find somewhere to put it.
Going back to your early credits, you were an extra on The Knack …and How to Get It (1965)?
Yeah. Along with Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin and about 10 other women in the same outfit.
And then your first official credit was Cul-de-Sac (1966).
What was it like to be 20 or 21 years old, just starting out, on the set of this bizarrely macabre black comedy for Polanski?
I love that film. It was totally surreal, the whole thing. The place was surreal! The water coming up and down, cutting off the island—I knew nothing about anything. I tested for it twice.
How many days were you on that?
I was on it, on and off, for about a month. They lodged me at the vicarage. Have you heard of Holy Island?
It’s what that island was called. They also shot [Polanski’s] Macbeth there. There was a castle, there was a very small village with two or three pubs. Because the water cut off the island every day at a certain point—the tide—the islanders could keep the pubs open. They produced something called Lindisfarne Mead. And it was an odd place; many of the people were inbred, so that was a little strange. The bird life… and the sky was silver—it was magnificent, the way the light, the sea, the wind, would create this silvery reality. And we had of course Françoise Dorléac, with her long straight hair and her exotic eye makeup, wandering around being wonderful. Lionel Stander was an extraordinary character! And Donald Pleasance with his lipstick and his weird—I mean, it was very surreal!
And Roman, of course, whom I thought was just brilliant. I had no frame of reference at that point. I’d seen Repulsion, and I’d seen The Cupboard [Two Men and a Wardrobe]. I was very pro-Roman and his type of cinema, and I was a complete beginner. They’d interviewed me and told me I was too fat, so I’d lost some poundage, and there I was. They were looking for an unknown girl to play the main character, which thank God I didn’t get, because I couldn’t have done it. And they decided then to take Françoise. But they were definitely looking for an unknown, and I got the other part. And Roman wasn’t easy, but I like him a lot, and I know him fairly well, I knew his wife, and I’ve been close to some of the tragic situations in his life. I was actually at the same house with Sharon [Tate, Polanski’s wife] and the same people who were murdered there a week later.
Yeah. With various things I’ve been close. And I’m fond of him; he’s had a lot of suffering in his life. He’s now demonized and nobody forgives him, but I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. He gave me a shot, and I’ve kind of waited to see if anybody overtook him as a filmmaker in my mind, in terms of who knew more. I hold him up as a very high-level filmmaker, and somebody I’m fond of.
What was his personality on the set?
Well, there’s a degree of authority about him. There’s also a degree of poetry about him. He’s not easy to talk to, I never found him easy to talk to. He used to be rather mocking with me. He would say things like “Oh, you would say anything, wouldn’t you?” And I was very shy at that time, but I admired him, and I felt he was on a different level. I mean I’d worked with Richard Lester. And some other thing as an extra, I can’t remember who directed it. But basically, that was the beginning. Then I worked on Casino Royale —Joe McGrath was the director [of my scenes]. Huston hadn’t come on it yet. Two for the Road  was Stanley Donen.
Yes, and that now feels like a transitional film. The studio era was winding down, the New Hollywood was gearing up, and it plays like it has one foot in each world. It has a frankness that wouldn’t have been there five or even two years before. Did you feel these shifting currents when you were making it?
No, I didn’t know enough about cinema and I hadn’t seen enough films to make judgments. For me it was a chance to go to France to shoot and have expense money, and watch Audrey Hepburn, and feel free, and just be part of a tournage, you know? Just be part of a shoot. I was delighted to be invited and I really hadn’t got the [measure] of the business yet. I’d done Cul-de-Sac, but I’d been mortified at times because when I couldn’t do what Roman asked me to do I had a lot of stress. The Two for the Road shoot went very easily, but I noticed that—have you ever been on a shoot in France?
At lunchtime they get out the bottles of wine and the Pernod and the fantastic lunch, and they spread the tables out and you have wine with lunch, and it’s all incredibly civilized and fun. Well, I didn’t know the Pernod was—I thought it was just anise seed. The crew would have Pernod and I would join them, and one day somebody said to me, “You know, Jackie, you’re a better actress after lunch than beforehand!” [Laughs] I thought, “Oh really, is that true?” And actually, somebody on the Polanski movie had said that to me as well, when we had wine at lunch sometimes. And I thought: so I need to relax, basically! I didn’t pay any attention to it at all, but I thought, if that’s true, that I need alcohol to make me a better actress—because I was very shy—then I must stop doing that. And without any knowledge of what the world was like, really, I was still living in England, but as I look back, I see how many people have fallen by the wayside for that very reason, and you can’t take that fun thing to do as something you do to be more relaxed. You find another way of getting there. And after I went to Hollywood, thank God some part of me had enough discipline to not take that line, “You’re a better actress…” [to heart]. I don’t seek the easy way. It’s not my nature. My nature is actually to find the hard way. People say, “You overcomplicate things,” but I’m not overcomplicating, I’m seeing around the issue, I’m seeing in front of it, I’m seeing behind it, I’m taking a whole circle around it to assess it.
I do get quite stressed out, because when I think about movies, I don’t just see my role. There’s a scene in Day for Night, when all the actors are interviewed, and they say “Well, this film is about my character”; “This is about me”; and everybody says the same thing. They don’t see that the film is not about their character, it’s about cinema. And it made me laugh, because many actors do the same thing. They only see it from their point of view. For some reason, I don’t know why, I’ve been lucky enough to be more lucid about always serving the film, or always serving the character. You have to serve the film.
What methods did you find of making yourself less inhibited on set?
Well, I was always shy, and I gradually got more confident. And more absorption. I used to waste energy talking to all the crew—being…always chatty and friendly and everything—and Maximilian Schell, actually, was the person who quite a lot later said to me—I worked with him three times, and I asked him, “Why do you always go to your dressing room?” “Because I like to conserve energy.” And I felt like I got energy [from socializing with the crew]—well, I got fun, and I had admiration to some degree, and they liked me and I needed that. But at a certain point I thought: no, I’m beginning to understand, when you have a big part you’ve got to conserve energy. Sometimes in the earlier films I would spread myself around the set and talk with everybody and be absolutely everybody’s friend, and by the time they got round to me at the end of the day, I was tired.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m a mix. I had an interesting—before I became an actor, my Latin teacher—there were only four in the class, because most people didn’t do Latin, but I did Latin—and he was a fascinating man. He spoke eight languages. He was called Dr. Laborde, and I found his stories interesting. He called us his “four sugarplums.” And he said “And you”—because I always had ten questions to ask: why, what, how, you know—he said, “You’re such a chatterbox, you might make a good actress!” I thought, “Actress, me?” I stuffed it in the cupboard, and about two and a half years later I was in London, trying to earn money so I could become an actor, and I was at a dinner with Roman Polanski and [Dino] De Laurentiis. Roman said to me: “You are such an introvert, you might make a good actress!” So I figure I’m both. But that’s when it entered my mind: am I an extrovert or an introvert?
I think the way they define it is: does being around other people drain you or revitalize you?
Oh, well, it revitalizes me, mostly.
Then you’re probably more on the extrovert side.
I don’t know. I love my privacy—I just like to make genuine contact with people. I’m not fond of—well, I am sometimes—talking rubbish. I like both! To this day I don’t know if I’m an introvert or an extrovert. But compared to some women I’m an introvert, because some women talk constantly. And some men talk constantly. And I realize when I’m with those people I’m very quiet, usually, until it’s something that feels like it has to be defended [laughs]. So, I don’t know. But anyway, that amused me a lot, those two things in a period of two years, and before I was told I was such a chatterbox I might be a good actor, I never dared think of such a thing!
Under the Volcano (1984)
Speaking of coming along at the end of the studio era, you worked with people who were holdovers, like George Cukor and John Huston, people who’d been around for a long time, and I’ve heard you describe them as “totalitarian.”
Oh, they were!
Could you talk a little bit about their militancy and what was expected of you?
“Militancy” is going too far, but they were autocrats.
Did you respond to that?
I got my tongue bitten a couple of times. I got scolded a couple of times for being, maybe, slightly cheeky. I remember asking—on Under the Volcano I asked John Huston at a certain point—it was a very macho movie, very few women around, and very sort of highbrow press, and there was a sense you were in church: you had to be careful what you said, and you had to whisper. That’s a bad image, but it was my feeling that you could get bitten by one of these intelligent people, and didn’t know if you’d survive. And [my character] Yvonne was very fragile, I felt. But Huston didn’t say anything for several days, so I remember one day saying to him, “Mr. Huston, am I doing alright?” [Huston impression] “Yes, my dear. If you’re not I’ll tell you.” Okay, simple enough. But there was this sense of intimidation, that it was a men’s world, and people played poker, and the people they chose to come down and do pieces on us were all very highbrow. And I remember thinking, why do we need to be highbrow? Why don’t we just get on with the film? Not that Huston was setting it up, but he engendered that. People projected themselves onto him. That was a constant thing: people constantly projected themselves onto him. He actually was slightly devilish in his eyes, dangerous, strong, charismatic and all those things, but people projected onto him. But he was nice to me. I’d worked with him before, and the first time I’d felt that he hadn’t connected to me at all. He wasn’t well at the time.
The first time? On The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)?
Judge Roy Bean.
What I love about Under the Volcano is that there are many films about alcoholics, but this is the one that most feels like you’re watching it through an alcoholic haze.
That’s what it is!
It really feels like you’re as inebriated as the protagonist played by Albert Finney. So it must’ve been difficult for you to calibrate your performance—
Yes, that was the issue…
—because the whole movie plays like a hallucination, or a reverie.
And I’m delighted you say so, because that was what I—well, I read the book, and Yvonne is hardly in the book. And in the first script, she seemed to me—I can’t remember the actual script, but I remember thinking, she’s too present. And I said, no, this whole story is through his drunken eyes. In the book I’m never really fully focused on, and so I’ve got to find a way of being much more fragile. And I went down to see Huston in Mexico, with great trepidation because I didn’t think the script was right, and as I got onto the plane to fly down to Puerto Vallarta, I was given a new script. I was to go down there for two days and spend time with him. He lived in a place called Las Caletas, which was a sort of—it wasn’t an island, but it certainly felt like an island when you went there, because there was nothing around, just the jungle. So I flew to Puerto Vallarta, wearing trousers, and I was met by a secretary—no, that’s not true. I was met by somebody who put me onto a rowing boat, and I rolled up my trousers, because there was no way to get on the boat without rolling up my trousers. I felt a bit odd, but I was dressed in a sort of way that I felt was the right way to go. We rowed over to the island; my back felt a bit dodgy, but we arrived. Nobody around, spooky experience; John Huston nowhere to be seen. A secretary came, gave me a tuna fish sandwich, put me in the compound, which was one of four or five buildings that were separated with jungle between them, and left me there.
When I got off the plane in Puerto Vallarta, I said, my questions are answered, what the hell am I going to say to him? I’m going down there to spend two days. So I waited—they told me that around 5 o’clock he would send for me. The lady left the island, there was no one around, no to talk to, I was on a peculiar diet of some obscure group of foods, and around 5 o’clock a Mexican girl arrived, and said “Mr. Huston is waiting for you.” He was up in one of his other compounds, and I got there and I was absolutely panicked. I said, what are we going to talk about? We started talking about alcoholism, and as I had the experience of being around a lot of people who had a problem, it turned into a very good conversation. And around 8 o’clock we stopped to have dinner, and I said, “Mr. Huston, is there any chance of having a drink?” [Huston impression] “Yes, my dear!” So we went off to the compound where the kitchen was, and I was given a glass of wine or something. But it was all so unlike what I’d heard about Huston: that he was a man of great refinement and food, and was amazing with wines and all that. I was very disappointed by—not very disappointed, but it was completely different from what I expected. We ate very banal food—totally banal food, totally ordinary experience, and he went off to bed. But, what is your actual question?
How do you play a character who’s basically someone else’s hallucination?
Right! That was the question.
Where you’re existing in his reduced consciousness.
In that script, my role had become more ephemeral. And I said, okay, I must not become too present. So I have to find a tone where I am this very feminine female presence that comes back into his imagination. He’d been dreaming about me coming back, and I arrive. I must not come into focus fully. And that we did with the help of Gabriel Figueroa, who was the cinematographer, who photographed my soul rather than my physique. And I have to tell you, from my point of view, it was the first time that I felt that the work I was doing was being photographed the way I had acted it.
I wasn’t being glamorized, I wasn’t being uglified, he got it! I burst into tears when I saw the rushes. That was the scene where I arrive at the taverna and [Finney’s character] is in there drinking. And I said, this is a first! And I put that down to Gabriel Figueroa’s lighting. He saw me. He took me into the light, stuck me in a doorway, put a light in front of me, and held it down. Just what I would do if I was a cinematographer: look at the face. And I can’t think of anybody else who did that. So it had credulity. And all the way through I needed to be neither English nor American nor French—I had to be a feminine presence. And not a modern feminine presence—a classic feminine presence. And with the help of those people, I think we did it.
Have you ever wanted to direct?
Not really. I did for a time, but then I used to think, direct what? What do I want to direct? I’d want to direct actors. But at the same time as I say that, I don’t really like being directed in terms of detail. And I was the director, I would want to direct people in detail, which would probably annoy the actors, because I like to be left alone. I just like the odd word.
So you appreciate the John Huston approach of leaving you to your devices?
Well, to his degree I had never seen it before. And there was one big scene where Albert, Anthony Andrews, and myself were talking outside the house, we were not inside the house, and it was going to be a long scene. And John Huston said, “Now my dears, I’m going to go off and let you say what you want. Just get on with it, and just do it your way.” I was a bit surprised! It was going to lead into a long, long scene with Albert, and very little dialogue from us two. And we moved around, and it was pretty logical. And then about 35 minutes later, John Huston came back and he said, “Yes my dears, now what have you come up with?” And we showed him what we’d come up with, and he said, “Now I think I’ll put my camera here.” And that’s all he said. And we shot the scene. Of course, putting the camera in the right place is absolutely key to getting the action. No fuss, just following the lines. And as the script evolved, he made it meaner and meaner and meaner, and got rid of the plot. He talked to me very little. At one point I asked for a close-up—in one scene I really felt I needed a close-up—he said, “Do you want to direct the movie as well?” I was mortified. But I said, “Well, I just feel like…” He didn’t answer me, really. And he didn’t shoot the close-up. But it didn’t need it, he was right. We didn’t need it.
Before 1980, I was a very big Cassavetes fan, I was a Bergman fan, and I love close-ups, because for me the face is very important. But after working with Cukor and one or two others, I learned that body language is also very important. I could understand the value of body language more than I did before, so I didn’t feel the need to always be up close. That was a kind of revelation. As much as I do love close-ups if what they’re saying is really interesting, and if the skin quality is really present, you feel like you’re with the people, breathing. In Bergman movies you felt the women’s faces were alive with flesh, skin, pores, everything! It was just so part of the film. Anyway, you live and learn, and then I started to trust my own body more. Because for many years I never knew what to do with my hands. The typical thing, you know: in the beginning, you think, I must have pockets. Or I must have something to fiddle with, or a handbag, I don’t know what to do with my hands when I’m talking! But gradually that just evaporates, and you know what to do with your hands. There’s a time when walking and talking are big things, when you start. I can do the scene perfectly stationary, but then they say “We’re gonna get it up on its feet.” The dialogue disappears and you forget everything. You say, “But I planned in my mind to—” “No planning! Out the window!” It’s all progress.
Are you critical of your own performances?
Do you watch your films?
So when you look at the early work do you see a stiffness, or an inhibition?
Yes, sometimes I see very bad things. And sometimes I see really good things.
That reminds me of a quote, and I want to get it just right. You said: “It is much easier for me to reach stuff now, compared to years ago. My emotions are very near the top of my skin. I don’t have to dig or anything, I get there very quickly, because I have lot to pull from.”
Yeah, too quickly! Absolutely!
Is that just experience?
Why do you say “too quickly”?
Because you have to be careful. The audience’s reaction is—they have to do some work too. You mustn’t flush them out with too much emotion. Self-consciously, they don’t know what to do with themselves if you give them too much. They have to come forward. And [you must] personalize it, so they feel something. This is why silences are very important—not too many words. Audiences, if they’re with you, are into their own experience, they’re into their own projection and everything. You’ve got to leave them time to feel something. A lot of actors have the choice to cry, and often it’s a mistake. The audience is uncomfortable. So the thing is having the emotion to cry, and stopping it. Very rarely is the streaming tears thing effective for the audience. Less is more sometimes. I’m sure you’ve had the situation where you’re with somebody and they start crying madly and you don’t know what to do.
Yes, it’s difficult to know your role in those instances. That reminds me of The Sleepy Time Gal, a movie that could easily have become maudlin but does not. I think of your reunion scene with Seymour Cassel, who plays an old love of yours who’s married and living on a farm with his wife. There are so many emotions beneath the surface in the scene where you see each other for the first time in years, and he gives you a smile.
It’s sweet, isn’t it?
I agree! I met Seymour when I first went to Hollywood, and he played a surfer in the first movie that they had me do there, called The Sweet Ride. And he said he’d waited 30 years to kiss me, and he finally kissed me in the movie [laughs].
Day for Night (1973)
Did that role in The Sleepy Time Gal  resonate with you?
Oh, totally! It was such a difficult role. And I loved [the writer/director] Chris Munch. And how difficult is it to find a role like that? Such a fantastic role.
It’s a role of someone who’s lived a full life, but also one that’s marked by missed opportunities and connections. Did you think about regret?
No. Very little. But it was a fantastic role, and he wanted me to do it as an American. It took me a year to get ready for it, because when I did the American accent I lost my femininity completely. I just lost it. And I said, this is horrific. No way can I do this thing with this accent, and if I get the accent right, there’s no woman there. So I practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced, and some of it was very literary, in the script. We got rid of some of the literary quality of the character, simplified it gradually over a year. It took us three years to do the film for economic reasons. We started one section of it, and there was a long gap, and I can’t remember what we ended up with, but we started with [my character’s] discovery that she was sick. And, god, I loved that role. But I wanted her to be a woman as well. She’d done so much, but I had to work my way through all these jobs she’d done. It’s not enough to say “I’ve done these jobs,” I had to work my way through it. I had to chew my way through it, and emotionally find my way through each thing—social worker, music—chew my way through it until I felt like they were part of who I was. It wasn’t relevant to the story at hand, but it was the past.
Did the prolonged shooting schedule help with that? Getting to live with this character for a long time?
I think it did. It permitted me to shoot the first part where she wasn’t feeling well and sort of put on a little bit of weight, and get through that section. Then she got better, she was in remission, so I had time to pull myself together so I looked younger and fresher. And then when she starts to get ill again I ate everything I could think of to make myself look awful. The scenes with the mother, where I was going through chemo again, I just ate lots of salts and bad foods to make myself look unwell, and everything showed on my face. So it did help. I used to use food as a big tool in my physical transformation.
What’s another example of that?
I can’t think of another time when it was so clearly that, but just in and out of roles when I needed to look good, or to look not good, you just eat normally and not look good, and then you have to really pull back and just eat without salt and then I’d look much younger. I don’t know if I could still do that. I think my face has aged quite a lot and I don’t think I can pull back from that. But certainly I can look a lot worse than I do if I eat. I just did a film called Asher, in which I play an old, mean, dementia-ridden cockney lady who’s called Dora. Working-class Dora. And I never looked at myself in the mirror. When I was doing the ADR [dialogue looping] in London about a month ago and saw, I got a real shock. I was absolutely convincing.
When we were talking about holding back emotions and letting go, I thought of Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York , your confrontations with Depardieu. There’s a fury there that I wonder how you summoned. That’s probably the angriest I’ve seen you since The Greek Tycoon .
Oh, I love that scene in The Greek Tycoon! It was so fun to have an actor I could do it with who wouldn’t get all softie on me. And with Anthony Quinn you could just go for it!
And with Depardieu too, I imagine.
That was a different kind of humiliation. I mean, in The Greek Tycoon it was potential humiliation, yes. But with Depardieu, I think [my character] Simone had gotten used to—well, I’ll never know if she knew about what was going on. I think she did know, but she did definitely love her husband. There was a lot of love, still.
It’s also a very theatrical-seeming scene. You’re literally confined to a set because Devereaux, Depardieu’s character, is under house arrest, and it has a stagebound quality, in a very determined way. Have you done much stage acting?
No, I’ve done virtually none. I like doing improv. And if you know who you’re playing, I find it really easy. The thing is to not be too self-indulgent. That’s the danger of improv. Gerard’s easy to work with. For him to work in English is not easy, but I find him to be very touching, and I think Simone understood Devereaux’s talent even more than he did. I don’t think he realized what a great person he was. He could’ve been a great president. And I think her belief in him overrode, to some degree, conventional behavior that she might’ve done to a lesser guy. I mean, I think she would’ve probably been bossier—she is pretty bossy, but she was paving the way for him. And people say she wanted it for herself, I didn’t feel she wanted it. I think she wanted to do it with him. I don’t think she wanted anything for herself; she was very much in love with him. So the humiliation of it all is big.
When you play either a real person or a thinly veiled version of a real person—and there are degrees of this, because you played Jackie Onassis in earnest in the 2003 TV movie America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story, and earlier in The Greek Tycoon you played someone who was modeled on her.
Modeled on her without being her, yeah.
And Simone in Welcome to New York is sort of an Anne Sinclair takeoff, but by a different name.
Yes, I read a lot about her, but I didn’t—I had scenes where I could be her, but she was a very charming woman. I didn’t have the scenes where I could play her [like that]. I had no scenes of her being anything but angry.
So do you feel any obligation toward verisimilitude?
Oh, of course I feel a responsibility. I played the Virgin Mary once—talk about responsibility! But you can only do what the director lets you do. You can’t do it if you don’t have the words or scenes. I’ve found that in several cases. I remember in [the 1987 miniseries] Napoleon and Josephine, playing Josephine, there was a whole element to her that I found in letters and stuff which was not in the script, which was her playfulness and her overspending and her femininity of a certain type. And I remember saying to the director [Richard T. Heffron], “But this is what happened in this scene, I have a letter from so-and-so to so-and-so, and it describes something that’s in it.” And he said, “But we can’t be dealing with that, Jackie. This is the scene.” I said, “But she didn’t do that! This is what happened in the letter.” “Look, this is the script. Use what you can. What’s between a couple—you don’t actually know what happened. Just take what you know about love, what you know about being with an impossible man, what you know about drinking, what you know about sex, anything that’s applicable across the board with anybody you might know, and round it out with love—or with hate, really, or indifference, or whatever it is.”
Everybody has different thoughts about everybody they know. “Oh, he was wonderful!” “Oh, I thought he was an asshole!” “No, he was wonderful!” So, where do you go? And even if Devereaux was, from a woman’s point of view, a terrible guy, presumably all those people who he had sex with wanted to, and he wanted it with them, and you have to try and be a broader human and say, stuff just happened. You can’t moralize on it. It happened. It happened in a way that was painful to the wife, et cetera, et cetera, but as we go through life, we’re all living this every day. Someone doesn’t do exactly what your projection of them is, and you get upset. They don’t fit your projection. But it still is relevant—it’s what happened. That is what it was. The more you can learn not to react to stuff—this is all about preconceptions that cause problems, really. You can’t have a “You have to fit this box and if you don’t I’m going to be angry.” Oh god, it hurts! But it’s not tidy. It’s not tidy.
You do seem drawn to scripts that don’t impose a point of view or tidy takeaway.
Oh, do I?
Yes, you do. That brings up Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, because it’s a film where we might expect your character, Catherine, to be painted as a smug bourgeoisie, but she’s very sympathetic. But we can’t like her too much. There must be something patronizing about her, or at least comfortable in the trappings of her class.
Because if we like her too much, we don’t invest in the plight of the heroines, the maid and the postmistress. So how do you layer that?
Well, I figured that I wore white. It’s a statement about—when you don’t have a housekeeper, you’re busy, you’re busy, and you rarely take on white when you’re doing all the chores, you know? And I felt that she was smugly in her house, wearing her white suit, which was a sign of her being at ease, [knowing] somebody would do the laundry, would always do the chores for her. And in my impression, it was something that was annoying. Plus, she’s basically stolen the time of the housekeeper—she wanted her there for hors d’oeuvres and stuff. So Catherine and her husband were creeping in on the time of the woman, not respecting her time off. I think she was a kind person, but does subtle things where people become colorless because they don’t have any power. And the fact that she says “You could stay a little longer” is like “You belong to me and your time is not as respected as my own time.” Little details like that. And whether it came off, I felt that was already a statement about lack of respect. So, I mean, the postwoman is a demon, and I think that’s in the air.
I think it was in the air at that time, and I think it’s in the air now. We’re walking a very fine line. And I’m kind of on the side of the rebellion; I think it’s just outrageous what’s going on, it can’t go on forever. Things come to a head, and then the French Revolution happens, or the Russian Revolution. You can’t just mistreat people. Chabrol used to say—he lived a rather bourgeois life in many ways, but he was very anti-bourgeois. He loved his food, he loved comfort, but his image was that he was anti-bourgeois. And he said, “They’ll come into the center of Paris and they’ll knock everything over. There’ll be a big flare-up, and those good living quarters—the fifth, the sixth arrondissements and all those wonderful places where people love to be—will get burned.” He used to say that. But your point is well-taken. And when Catherine gets dressed up, of course there’s red blood on her white outfit. I remember suggesting the white: getting dressed up to go and watch the TV. It’s all very pretentious—to go and watch the opera.
She dies watching the opera.
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)
Before we go. I want to talk about Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978). Do you fall into the rhythms of comedy naturally?
Rarely. Rich and Famous  was the one that had the rhythms built into it. Did you see Rich and Famous?
That had some natural rhythms in it which I loved, particularly the scenes with the daughter and the Rolling Stone reporter. That was something fantastic to act—just wonderful fun to play.
Is it a difference in pacing to play comedy?
Well, it is.
In Great Chefs, did you play your character as unaware that she’s meant to be funny?
I didn’t think she was funny. I thought she was light and pleasant, but I didn’t think she was funny. I thought the French guys were funny with their food manias.
I guess Robert Morley got the best bits.
We had to do a scene 35 times. We had to walk up and down a staircase. I thought he would have a heart attack, I was worried. The director hadn’t got it the way he wanted it. I like that film; it’s grown on me, actually, though I haven’t seen it in years. But it was hard work, running from place to place, and a lot of—just technically, a lot of presence necessary. I didn’t particularly have fun on it.
That’s what I was getting at: you haven’t done that much comedy, so I wondered if it was an unhappy experience for you.
No, it wasn’t unhappy, just too busy. I don’t like roles that are that big. Too big. I was just in everything, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I learned that early on, that I didn’t particularly enjoy being in everything. I like time to cogitate—to think about what I might want to do. I’m attracted to things where there are several people. I mean, in Sleepy Time Gal, I had a big part, but several other people had quite big parts too, and I felt she was really interesting, and it kept me very busy. But I’ve tended to like parts that are juicy in some way, but I don’t need to be in everything. Life is not like that: you’re not in everything, you’re one part of other things.
You once said, “I’d like to get my public image nearer to my reality. People have a lot of misconceptions.”
Yeah. I don’t know what my public image is at this point. People don’t know me as well as they used to, and I don’t know what my public perception is. No idea, in fact. It depends: if people have seen a lot of the films I’ve done, I think the perception would be I’m quite a versatile actor. I can tell by the way people write to me, and they go on about how brilliant I was in something which I personally don’t feel was particularly interesting. I used to fight it, but now I go, “Okay, it’s what they like. It’s what they saw.” I can’t know who I am [to everyone]. I know that my talent is growing, and that I’m a broader, wiser, fuller person, and if I can find projects that I get a chance to do, I’ll attempt to do them broadly and wisely, and hopefully amusingly. You can’t do what isn’t there. And you can’t be better than the people who surround you. Bernard Shaw made a remark that used to really bother me. He said something like, “In a relationship between two people, the relationship always takes the lower level.” God almighty, I hope that’s not true. I don’t know if it is or not, but it’s thought provoking. So if you apply that to who you work with and so on and so forth, in any context, if it’s true it’s very disquieting.
That used to bother you. Have you reached a reconciliation?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s true. I think when you’re younger you don’t know what you’ve got to give, and when you get older, you know you’ve got a lot to give. A lot to teach, and a lot of passing on to do. Hopefully not in a bossy way, hopefully done in a gentle way. But, you know, I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about filmmaking which I rarely express, because nobody’s asking me. But I just did this thing in France where I felt they were not up to scratch with the lighting, and I suggested a few things, and they said “How do you know this stuff?” I know it because I’ve been through it, and I’ve seen the difference, and I look at rushes, and I see things, and I can feel the light. The light is, for me, the center of what filmmaking is about. The light is the love. The absence of light, the presence of light—it’s about love. The whole thing’s about love. And then they’re like, “What do you mean?” Well, I don’t have time to tell you, it’s just a feeling. I can feel it. I can feel somebody is not looking, because if they’re looking—after all, we’re in a world where we’re attempting to show the beauty of anger, or the beauty of love, or whatever it is—it’s still about love. It’s about how you film it, how you bring it out. It’s not about glamorizing a character when she’s supposed to be awful-looking. It’s the opposite—it’s about being true. It’s in the heart; it’s in the soul. I feel it, because I feel it with people. Maybe you haven’t got time to be nice to them at that moment, but you know when something’s wrong. All those feelings are more familiar, and potentially more helpful to other people, but you don’t necessarily know what to do with it, all this age that life brings you.
Steven Mears received his MA in film from Columbia University, where he wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.