Olivia Hussey became an international sensation at age 16, with the release of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Other memorable films include Death On the Nile, Lost Horizon, Black Christmas, and Psycho IV: The Beginning. The spiritual-minded actress has also become an icon to Christian viewers by playing the Virgin Mary in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, Esther in the telefilm The Thirteenth Day: The Story of Esther, and the title role in Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Now, Hussey is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Romeo and Juliet by coming to San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Valentine's Day 2008 for an archival-print screening accompanied by an onstage interview. In anticipation of her visit, I spoke with Hussey by phone from her home in Hollywood.
Olivia Hussey: Hello, Peter?
OH: How are you?
G: Good. How are you?
OH: I'm okay, thank you—Just getting my breath back.
G: Oh. Sure.
OH: You know, it gets harder as you get older.
G: Ah, yes.
OH: I'm joking. I run up and down the stairs a hundred times a day. With all my animals.
G: Oh, yes. Well, let's start very close to the beginning. You grew up in Argentina, and you lived there until about age seven, is that right?
G: Do you have any clear memories of that time? I know you probably haven't had much time to spend there since.
OH: No, not really. I mean obviously I remember my father, and you know, it was such a long time ago, Peter. No, I remember leaving there and going to England with my mother and my brother.
G: And as a child, playacting became a fun pursuit for you very early—
OH: I wanted to be an actress from the age of four. I used to walk around the house with a towel on my head pretending to be a nun, and one day, I thought, you know it would be much easier if I could act being a nun, [rather] than be a real nun. And that's when I kept saying, "I want to be an actress."
G: When would you say you caught the acting bug?
OH: My mother took us away from Argentina when I was seven and my brother was six. And my dream was to be an actress. So I asked her to find—I was fearless when I was small like that. I got the fears as I got older. But I just asked her to find a drama school, and she found a drama school in England, and we couldn't really because we had left Argentina with so little. We couldn't really afford to go to one of the expensive drama schools. But I said, "Maybe, you know, I can work, and maybe they'll take me in—at least let's get an interview." So my mother called the school and got an interview with Miss Conti, the head of the Italia Conti state school. And I was seven years old. Seven and a half. And I said, "You know, I see you've got your writing paper, and one day I'm going to be on that writing paper. I'm a great actress, and all I need is the chance to prove it."
G: (Chuckling) At seven, you said that.
OH: Yes. I was seven and a half. I was almost eight. And Miss Conti looked at me and laughed, and she said, "You know, I love your spunk." And she said, "I'll give you the chance." I said, "My mother can help in dribs and drabs but, really, I know I'm going to start working once I'm here. And I'll pay for my own fees." And that's what we did. She let me come in. I talked my way into the school. And then I started doing modeling and doing walk-on parts and you know. So by the time Romeo and Juliet came around, I'd already been doing a lot of work.
G: Sure. Now how did you get from drama school to starring in a Delmar Daves film [The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, 1965]?
OH: What happened was I had done a small film called Cup Fever that was with the Manchester United Football team. And I played a fan in it. And I went—you know, we were all sent out on auditions from our drama school. And I was always painfully shy and very short for my age, and I went to audition for a great English stage director called Peter Woods for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was the new hottest play by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Muriel Spark. And I was auditioning and Jay Presson Allen happened to be—you know, this was a long time ago; I got to think about it. Jay Presson Allen happened to be visiting the theatre that day—American playwright. And as I was auditioning, she was sitting in the back. And Peter Woods said, "You know what, Olive, get over to the other side of the stage." And I turned around in one minute, you know. I was twelve years old. And I said, "Nobody calls me Olive. That's my grandmother's name. I'm Olivia." And he burst out laughing. And apparently Jay Presson Allen said, "I want her to play Jenny, the pretty one." She said, "I saw her in a little football film called Cup Fever. My daughter loves her and I want her to play this role." So that's how really I started on the stage.
OH: I had done walk-ons at the Old Vic where I had no dialogue yet. I hadn't worked my way up to dialogue.
G: Now that experience—acting opposite Vanessa Redgrave—I assume was a charmed one.
OH: It was amazing. It was amazing because we got to work—I had the second lead role out of the girls, and Vanessa was so giving and so wonderful—such a great human being. You know, this was before she got into all her politics and things. I mean, she was just so beautiful as well. We all so looked up to her. And she left Brodie to go do Camelot, which started her movie career at that time.
G: Mm-hm. And is it true that she sort of took you under her wing? You got Romeo and Juliet very much on the heels of that production.
OH: Yes I did. Yes, I did. She left to do Camelot, and she said goodbye to those of us who she had grown attached to. And I went into her dressing room, and she put her arms around me and she said, "You know Olivia, one day all of this is going to happen for you too." And I didn't see it at the time. And then, I think it was a matter of a year later, or something, that Zeffirelli, you know, was auditioning in London for Romeo and Juliet, which started out to be a three-week television special for the BBC in England—the first color special. That's what Romeo and Juliet was going to be. And Paramount heard about it, and then suddenly it became this huge thing, you know?
G: And is it true that he had seen you in the play?
OH: He came to see me in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie after I auditioned for him.
OH: And I guess he saw, like, eight hundred girls in London alone.
OH: And then I auditioned for him, and I don't think he was too thrilled with the audition. And then one day I am up with the guards, up at the top of the theatre and they said, "Olivia, come down to the stage door." And I come down like four steps at a time leaping down the stairs, and I leap right down and there's Franco standing there with Dyson Lovell, who's one of the producers of the film, and he said, "Darling, I want you to test again and I want you to work. This is Dyson, my partner in this, and we're going to put you with a dialogue coach, and I want you to study very hard, and when I come back from Rome in a month and a half, I want you to test again." So that was how it happened, you know?
G: And you were, from what I read, mostly up against blue-eyed blondes, so—
OH: Yes. A lot of blue-eyed blondes. Well, when I first did the first audition, Franco came into the dressing room and he walked past all the girls, and there were a lot of girls who were sharing the same white dress. You know, we were taking it off to put it on for the next one who goes in. It was like a cattle call. And he came into the dressing room, and he came right over to me, pulled his comb out of his jacket and he put my hair in a middle-parting, and he put me in front of the mirror and he said, "What do you think of that?" I said, "I look ridiculous."
OH: And he said, "You don't understand anything. This is a classic look." And he said, "That's how I want you to test, with your hair like that." And then he said, "How do you think Juliet should be?" And I said, "Long blond hair and blue eyes." He said, "You understand nothing." (Laughs.)
OH: So it was like that. It was love at first sight. I just adored Franco. I had such a crush on him when we were doing the whole of the film. And remember, I was only fifteen when I started.
OH: He was such a genius and such a joy to work with.
G: And you auditioned at one point with the potion soliloquy, right?
OH: Yes I did. That's what got me the part because the balcony scene—he paired us off in groups. He happened to pair me with Leonard Whiting. And other girls were paired with other, you know—he said, "The moment you walked in that door, I said, 'That's my Juliet, and that's what she has to look like. Now let's just see if Olivia can act.'"
OH: Right? But he told me that after all the pain of the auditioning and everything. And anyway, he paired me off with Leonard and we had to do the balcony scene, and, at fifteen, I was very shy. I mean those scenes were really—you know, it was a different time. It's not like today, you know. And we did the balcony scene, and it was really just a lot of work. And it was—oh God, the dialogue. I couldn't wrap my tongue around a lot of it. It was just—I found it very difficult because, you know, she goes through all these different mood swings on the balcony. I mean it's a heavy scene for two really young kids to play.
G: Oh yeah.
OH: And Franco said, "Well, I'm not that impressed with the balcony scene," and I said, "Well, I'm sorry, I'm doing the best I can here," and he said, "Have you read the play?" I said, "Yes, I read the play, I played Romeo in school," right?
OH: And he said, "Well, which?" I said, "Out of all of the scenes in the whole film for Juliet, I think the potion scene's the best scene." So he said, "Well, could you learn that, and the next time I come into town, which is in two weeks, will you come back and test on the potion scene?" And I said, "Yes." And in the balcony scene, he'd try to direct us and say, "No, you need to look at one another with passion"—all of this. But then he went away and I learnt. The potion scene was incredible. I mean, I learned it in an hour. And at the time I was working in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Windham Theatre and working with a dialogue coach for English accent. And one night before Zeffirelli got back into town, I said to all the girls in the theatre, you know, because it was—Brodie's a play about a lot of school girls. And I said to them, "I've been rehearsing this potion scene and I want to do it for you"—because they were my harshest critics. And I said, "I'm going to audition for Zeffirelli in a couple of days. Do you want to see what I've come up with?" And they all said, "Yes. Yes." So they all sat in the dressing room all over the —I'll never forget—on the makeup counters and like that. And so I started doing the potion scene, and by the time I finished, their jaws were open. And there was absolute silence. So I knew that it touched them, you know?
OH: And then Zeffirelli came into town, and that day Michael York was visiting him. And there were three men that I hadn't seen in the auditions before, and they were the Paramount men. And I didn't know that at the time. Franco said, "Okay, darling, it's the potion scene now. You've got the potion scene you said you loved." I said, "Yes." He said, "Okay, I want you to do the—", and I said, "No, please, just tell me where you want my marks to be, and let me just show you what I've come up with. Let me just show you what I feel." And he said, "Ohhh, okay." Well, this is surprising, right? So I started with the potion scene, and I got all dramatic and—because, you know, in the film he cut it down to one line: "Love, give me strength." But there's actually a whole monologue that she does before taking the potion.
G: It's a whole scene.
OH: And by the time I'd finished, I fell back with—dramatically, and I was crying and when I fell, once I started crying I couldn't stop. You know, I was like (emotionally gasping for breath). And when I stood up, everyone was just standing there in sheer—just silence. Franco said, "Cut." And then he walked over to me, and he put his arms around me and said, "You're gonna love Rome."
OH: And that's when he said, "You musn't tell anybody yet—because we're going to make a big public announcement." And I said, "Really?" and he said, "Yes. You're my Juliet."
G: And was that sort of an in-the-room audition or a screen test? Were they filming that?
OH: It was a screen test. It was at 60 Sixteenth Street in London. And that's where he was doing all the testing, you know? And it was actually the potion scene that—and Michael—he didn't tell me at the time, but later Michael told me that he said, "Franco, if you don't hire this girl, you're crazy. You know this is Juliet."
G: That piece of footage would be worth its weight in gold
OH: Yeah, I think Franco has it somewhere.
OH: I think he kept that one, yes—And then, all through the film, I went through the balcony and all of this, and I got this very close bond with Franco. We're still friends today, you know. And all through the film I'd be saying, "When am I gonna shoot my potion scene?" because it was my favorite scene in the whole film, you know.
G: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
OH: And by the time he got to it, you know, he said, "Darling," he said—he didn't let me shoot it anyway. He just said, "You know, we have to keep this film flowing—moving forward." He said, "We have to make it one line, so that it just doesn't take away from the whole feeling of love that Romeo and Juliet have." And I was heartbroken that it was reduced to that one line. And years later, I went back to Rome—because I was always back and forth to Rome to visit him after that. And then we traveled around the world with the whole film. But one time I went there, and I met with Anthony Havelock-Allan, who was one of the producers along with along with [Lord] John Brabourne at the time. Anthony Havelock-Allan said to me, "You know, Franco didn't allow you to shoot the potion scene because he said, 'If she does this potion scene, it will—she'll get all the attention. The film won't be Romeo and Juliet—it will be "did you see Olivia Hussey in that scene?"'
OH: So he was so afraid it was going to steal the whole film. In a way I was heartbroken that I didn't get to do it, because it was such a wonderful scene for an actress. You know, and it really just—oh, I was—it was such a joy to do.
G: Well, maybe Paramount will unearth that bit of footage one day.
OH: Well, I'd—you know, if they can get it from Franco, if he's still got it. Remember, this year is the 40th anniversary of Romeo and Juliet.
OH: I mean it's quite incredible, isn't it, how time goes by? How old are you?
G: I'm thirty-three.
OH: Oh, you're young. Lucky you.
G: But yes, to me you are the definitive Juliet.
OH: Thank you. Thank you. And now, I hope I'm the definitive Teresa, even though nobody's seen that film yet.
G: Right, right. We'll talk about that as well. So the legend has been printed a few times over the years about Romeo and Juliet. So I wanted to do just a quick "lightning round" about some of the rumors, some of which are clearly false and some of which are probably true.
OH: Yes. What rumors?
G: Well, one thing that I read is that a rumor was spread—which I know not to be true—that you were Zeffirelli's daughter. Had you ever heard that one?
OH: (astonished) Oh, God no. If I was, I would never have left Rome.
G: (Laughs.) Right.
OH: No. Franco's gay.
G: Yes, I know. I knew that wasn't true, but I wondered if you'd ever heard that rumor.
OH: No, no. No I hadn't. He was like the first big crush I ever had. You know, he, Paul McCartney and Michael Caine. They were my pin-ups.
G: And Zeffirelli claims that he offered the role of Romeo to Paul McCartney.
OH: Yes, I know. I read that in an article. Well, he probably could have. He'd be offering the role of anybody to anybody with any meeting he had, you know. But when it came down to serious casting, I think, you know.
G: And of course the story is that you had a brief off-screen romance during the filming. Is that true?
OH: With who?
G: With Leonard.
OH: Too young. No, no, no.
G: That's a widespread rumor.
OH: We had big crushes on each other. You know, we kissed. We were fifteen and sixteen, you know. No, no. We didn't. We went out for awhile after the film was over.
OH: But it really didn't work out. But it was like we loved each other—my big crush was on Franco. I loved Franco. I just loved his genius and the way he worked and—you know, I was crushed when I found out he was gay.
OH: But I was only sixteen halfway through the filming, so I got over it quickly.
G: Now, by today's standards you two were very underpaid, weren't you, for that film?
OH: Very underpaid. And actually, we toured for eight months, you know, we were really the hottest young actors in the world at that time.
OH: We couldn't go to any country in the world and not be mobbed. It was unbelievable. It was like the Titanic phenomenon but at that time, you know?
OH: I mean it really was. I mean, to this day, when somebody meets me, and they recognize me, I see it in their eyes when they loved Romeo and Juliet, you know? It's a classic, classic film. It really is.
G: Oh, yes. I agree completely.
OH: I feel very honored—and so is Leonard—to have been a part of it.
G: Now another rumor was that you weren't legally allowed to watch the film premiere, technically, because of the nudity. Was that true?
OH: At that time, they didn't really. No, but I did watch it. I watched it in London. And we stayed up until four in the morning at the—I can't remember what it was—the Wal—the Astoria—the Waldorf Hotel or something like that—
OH: Waiting for the reviews. And the reviews came in and—in London—and they were so mean. You know, and I cried and Franco said, "Don't worry, it's just jealousy."
G: Yeah. Well, there was, of course, much praise as well. But I know there were mixed reviews. Of course, in London, they were so protective of the Shakespearean—
OH: But you know what? Franco said, "I really don't want it to be lost in the dialogue. I really want to make it a classic film that appeals to young people in fifty years from today."
G: Yeah. Which it does.
OH: I get e-mails today from—on my web page—twelve, eleven-year-old kids. You know, it's great.
G: Yeah. With crushes on you.
OH: Oh absolutely. I get love letters still. It's really wonderful.
G: Now, had you been prepared at all to handle—obviously it was such a whirlwind experience—it's impossible to imagine a headier experience than playing the most important role in dramatic literature for nine months in Italy—
OH: Well, playing the role was easy. It was heaven, and it became a whole way of life. We all became like a big family. It was the PR that took over.
OH: You know, I mean—
G: A global tour.
OH: Nobody was prepared for—I mean it really was a phenomenon of its time. You know, it really was. It was—I mean everywhere. We were on the covers of magazines all over the world. We'd be shooting fourteen hours a day. And lunchtime would be—the Paramount people would come and say, "You've got two interviews during this lunchtime. Each one half-an-hour long." And we'd never experienced anything like that.
G: And surreal moments like—didn't you dance with Prince Charles at the Royal premiere?
OH: Yes, yes. Yes, I got to see—he asked to sit next to me at the dinner and we danced together, and my feet were hurting and I took my shoes off, and I put my leg up on his leg—because he was so sweet and so charming and you know, so lovely.
G: Now, you've always been very complimentary, of course, about the great Zeffirelli. But for all he did for you, his was kind of a tough love, wasn't it?
OH: Yes. He's a—well, he's a genius in my mind. He really can do anything, you know. He's got his demons like everybody else. But he's really—once you work with Franco, you're totally spoiled because he just demands so much. I just adore him. I adore him. And he can be really hard to work with. But it's only because he wants the best. He can be charming and nice to some people—I mean, with me, he was so comfortable—that, you know, he's completely himself. I just completely understood him. Even when we did Jesus of Nazareth, Franco only has to look at me for whatever role, and I just say, "I know, let me try. Let me do this." It was very little direction. And then I'd say, "What was that like during, like, the balcony scene? What was that take like?" And he'd say, "Mmm, I think you can do better." And I'd say, "Okay." Then one time he'd say, "Perfect" or "Brilliant." And after that I'd say, "But was it brilliant?" And he'd say, "Well, it was good." And I'd say, "But was it brilliant?" "Well, it was really good." And I'd say, "No, I'll do it again." So he demanded the best. So after that, it was really, really tough. I couldn't work for two years after Romeo and Juliet because I just didn't want to. I was, at then, sixteen years old, almost seventeen. And we'd toured all over the world with this thing—opening the film all over the world. And you know, Paramount never so much as gave us like a little bonus check for personal appearances. I mean, it was incredible. We were very, very underpaid. We had horrible contracts—seven-year contracts. The only clause that I liked was that if we didn't like scripts being sent to us, we couldn't be forced to do them. So of course I turned everything that came down. Which, in a way, I regret it now because my body of work would have been much bigger. You know, one of the biggest things that happened to me—I'll tell you—that I really, really regret was that we were touring and we were so tired. You can remember how young we were. And we were in New York—we traveled—we'd gone to Canada the day before, and we'd flown in, and Hal Wallis, the big American producer wanted to meet me to talk about a couple of films he had in mind for me. Right? Paramount told me. And I said, "Well I'm really tired," and I was in a bad mood because I couldn't afford to go shopping and I was in New York. Can you imagine?
OH: I was there promoting Romeo and Juliet, and I was in a bad mood because I didn't have anything nice to wear.
OH: Right? And I'm making them a fortune with this film.
OH: You know, and so they put me—I went into this meeting and met Hal Wallis. He was a charming gentleman, and he said to me, "You know, I've got two projects in mind for you, Olivia, that I think you'd be perfect for." And I said, "Well, that's nice." And I was pouty, and I didn't know who Hal Wallis was. Of course, later I found out what a great producer he was. But at the time, I didn't care who he was. I was in a bad mood, I was young, I was tired. And I said, "What are those?" And he said, "Well, one is Anne of a Thousand Days with Richard Burton.
OH: And I said, "Oh, I would love to play Anne Boleyn. Oh thank you, I'd love that. Richard Burton's one of my favorites. I met him last month in London with Franco. And he was so sweet. And I would love to play that." And he said "Yes, yes. The other project is a project called True Grit with John Wayne."
OH: And I said, "But John Wayne can't act." And of course, John Wayne was one of his best friends. And I really blew it. And I didn't mean to. You know, now I'm older. And after that I said John Wayne's an American institution. He's a great, you know, movie star.
OH: Who cares if he's not Richard Burton on the stage? He is who he is. But at the time I didn't know. You know, you get very opinionated when you're young—as I'm telling my fourteen-year-old now. You know, we all think we know everything when we're young and then as we grow older we realize we know nothing. (Chuckles.)
OH: But at the time—so I blew those two parts. That was—I really regret that because those would have been two really good pieces of work.
G: I want to ask about something that you maybe don't get asked about as much, which is actually the character of Juliet—playing the character. She's an everygirl in a sense, but what was Zeffirelli's thought about how the character needed to be played and how did you see her?
OH: No, he just said she needs to be like a young girl of fourteen who's found love for the first time. She has to be a spitfire—full of passion and full of the emotions a fourteen-year-old feels. And just—"So basically Olivia, be yourself," you know?
OH: And that's how it was. And then—at first I thought, "Well, this dialogue is difficult," but then once you actually—the thing about Shakespeare, the beauty of Shakespeare, is once you know the dialogue, then you can let all the emotions come in.
OH: And another thing that I found over the years, is nobody rewrites Shakespeare. One of the worst things is when you take a job and you approve the script—you take the job, especially on television here—you know, you show up for work and they say, "Well, we've decided"—usually the producers—"We've decided to rewrite the scene." And they're shoving notes under your door at eleven o'clock at night. The beauty of Shakespeare is that nobody can rewrite it. All they can do is delete. They can delete certain speeches or certain lines. They cannot add. And they can't rewrite. Which is really—and he—once you actually get the dialogue down, then you understand it, and it's just—it's absolutely beautiful. And as an actor, it's very fulfilling to play.
G: Oh yes.
OH: Because the dialogue is really, I think, not quite as important as the feelings. But if the dialogue is right, then it should come out at the right moment. And the feelings—it's the feelings that are more important. I think the whole vibe of Romeo and Juliet was that they were two beautiful, young people who found love for the first time and were willing to die for it. And that's something that's ageless. I mean to this day—I think if Paramount re-released Romeo and Juliet, even in this jaded world of today, I think a lot of people would go see it again on the big screen and be moved all over again.
OH: It is a classic.
G: From our enlightened perspective now, of forty years later, one thing looking back was about—you know, I think you were pressured at the time about your weight. Is that true?
OH: Yes. Because I loved to eat. And I was a very compulsive person. And so when somebody ate one plate of pasta, I'd have to have three.
G: (Chuckles.) I'm that way too.
OH: And all my life I battled you know—until I hit like forty and then I said, "You know what? I'm going to get healthy, and I don't care anymore, you know. I'm just not going to worry about it." I was just talking to my daughter's girlfriend this morning—her little friend that came to spend the night—because she has a problem with her weight—she thinks she does. And I said, "You know, you've got this one life. Just really enjoy every day and accept yourself the way you are. Once you start to breathe deep and do that, you know, your weight will adjust. Everything adjusts as soon as you relax. You know, don't take it all so seriously. We're lucky if we get ninety years on this planet—
OH: "In this lifetime now in this body." You know, we all take it all so seriously. We're not here that long.
G: That's true.
OH: It is. But unfortunately, you have to, you know, live through a large portion of your life before that hits home. For some people, it never does.
G: One of the probably memorable parts of the experience that we haven't talked about of making Romeo and Juliet was the rehearsal period--living in the villa—Franco's villa.
G: Did you feel like it was a good preparation—that time—or chaotic, or both?
OH: Oh, I had a ball. We all did. Franco was so colorful and so full of life. And you know, we were all sharing different stories, and people would come, and he always had lots of rooms in the villa—it was fantastic. And he just—for me, anyway, it was fantastic. I had a ball.
G: And Franco had a reputation for seducing male cast members that would probably be considered harassment today.
G: Were you conscious of that during the—
OH: No, I wasn't. And I suppose because I was so young I wasn't exposed to that. And I've heard from a few people that it was tough on them. But, being a girl, I didn't have any problems at all.
OH: I just had a really good experience, you know? I became really good friends with Bruce Robinson and, um, um, oh, Mercutio. John McEnery. I don't see either one of them now. It was a long time ago. But I loved them. We used to hang out a lot. And of course, Leonard. We became like a big family.
G: And you worked with Michael York three times, right?
OH: Yes I did. Michael's very, very professional. He's a gentleman.
G: Your co-star Leonard complained about the nude scene—at least after the fact. What was your attitude about that—I mean obviously you were so young—and the controversy that surrounded that.
OH: Well at the time, I don't think anybody this young in English cinema had ever done anything like that. But it was done so tastefully that it really, you know, I mean—Franco shot it towards the very end of the film, so obviously we'd been working together for months on end. We all knew each other. And when the bedroom scene actually came around, you know, he sent Mauro, the makeup gentleman, to come up to my dressing room—and he said, "Franco wants you made up from head to toe. And I said, "But why? I'm going to have a long nightgown on." And he said, "Wwelll, that's what Franco—", and I said, "Well, okay." But I went down and I said, "Franco, I've got to at least have the underwear on," and then he'd say, "You know, it's their first night of love, and they're young: nothing will be inappropriate. It will be done in the best of taste." And once he'd explained how beautiful and how touching—the beauty of it, it was that they were so inexperienced and so young, right?—that it made sense. So then, it wasn't that difficult. And then the grips at that time, all the men in the crew, you know, got to know us all, and we were the youngest people on the set. So when we did the bedroom scene, a lot of the men, when they didn't have to, you know, be lighting something, they'd stand there with their backs to us. So they didn't have to watch what was going on in the shooting, which I thought was very respectful and nice. At the time, you get caught up in the role. I don't know what the big deal was all about anyway.
G: Well I think it's hard to imagine a nude scene that is more justified than that one, in a way.
OH: Exactly. But you know, at the time—now, everybody does nude scenes. But at that time, nobody other than—Vanessa Redgrave did a nude scene in Blow Up. Remember?
OH: That was at that time. But she was a lot older than I was at that time.
G: And it was such a counter-cultural film, and this was such a traditional one.
OH: Yes. But it was really the first nude scene of people our ages, I think.
G: Mm-hm. You worked with Zeffirelli, as you mentioned earlier, about a decade later on Jesus of Nazareth. Was the process any different ten years on? Had he changed as a director? Had you changed?
OH: No, we have a really—it's like a bond we have. You know, like every great director has their actor that works for them and they—and I'm his. I really believe that. And he has said it in articles and things as well. We just—you know, I, he—I don't know. We just have a bond. I sort of know what he wants and—I wish—in a perfect world, I'd love to work with him all the time. I wish that the last thirty years had been only with Zeffirelli, you know, because I just loved working with him.
G: I want to ask about Lost Horizon, which was an international smash hit, right?
OH: An international flop?
G: I thought it was—
OH: People that loved the film, I've got to tell you, get very upset with me if I knock it.
G: (Laughs.) It certainly got knocked here in America.
OH: Yes it did. It was voted one of the ten worst films ever made.
G: Yes, it does have that reputation.
OH: But it was a great cast. I got to meet Peter Finch—the late, great Peter Finch. And John Gielgud. And Charles Boyer. Liv Ullmann, who's a fantastic actress. Michael York again, you know. It was an incredible experience. And I was horribly pregnant during that shooting.
OH: So I was vomiting all day long. You know, it was awful. I was trying to pretend I wasn't.
G: Yeah. Well, it seems like a bizarre kind of torture to have a pregnant woman—
OH: Well, he didn't know. They would have replaced me if they had known. And I really didn't want to miss out on the role just because I was pregnant. And my costumes had to—you know, John Louis, the great designer—they had to keep letting the costumes out because I was getting bigger. And they were saying, "Olivia, are you eating a lot?" And I'd say, "No." And I really didn't want to tell them that I was pregnant, because I didn't want them to replace me, and I knew Natalie Wood wanted the role, and they gave it to me, you know?
G: And you had to do song and dances.
OH: I did, yes. And I loved to si—I loved to do the dancing. But unfortunately, I was so ill— ohhh.
G: Well, I think you come off well in those scenes. I think it's pretty impressive.
OH: Yes, thank you. It was just that I looked so big—because I was three months pregnant—three-and-a-half months.
G: Now you did a beloved cult horror film as well. Black Christmas.
OH: Yes. I was invited—actually this December, again—you know, poor Bob Clark died last year. And it's funny, because every year he'd call me and say, "Olivia, will you come to the screening of Black Christmas?' You know, every year, it plays here in Hollywood at some theater. It's like a cult classic. Right?
OH: And every year I'd say, "Oh, Bob. It starts at midnight. I like to go to bed early. I can't stay up that late." And then, the year before last, he called me and he said, "Will you come to this one?" And for some reason, my inner voice just said, "Yes. Why don't you just go this time?"
OH: And I did. Any they've got pictures of Bob and I together. And what's really funny is that a few months later—two, three months later, he died. I was really glad that I had actually done that at the end. That's a—you know, when I met Steve Martin, years ago—I had just cut all my long hair off, trying to change my image again. And Steve Martin was doing a film called Roxanne.
G: Ah, yeah.
OH: And I was called in to go in and meet. And when he heard I was coming in, he stayed behind with the producer. And I went into the meeting with my really short-cropped hair and he said, "You were in one of my all-time favorite films, Olivia." And I said, "Romeo and Juliet?" And he said, "No. Black Christmas.'
OH: He said, "I saw it twenty-three times, and loved it." You know, it's like a little cult classic, that film.
G: And they remade it as well.
OH: They remade it, and Bob was one of the executive producers on it, but I heard it was horrible. It just became like a slasher movie.
G: Now, speaking of horror films, you also made horror film history by playing Norman Bates' mother.
OH: Yes. Yes. I wish that the whole thing had been shot in black and white.
OH: That's my idea. It would have really been along the lines of the original Psycho.
OH: I loved playing a meanie. Normally, I get cast as the vulnerable victim. You know?
G: Right, right. So nice. Always so nice. Were you pleased then, with that experience and how it turned out?
OH: I loved working with Henry Thomas. I thought he was wonderful. Very professional young actor. And it was—I was pleased—I wished the film had been a little—done a little better, I think. You know, I wish it had been in black and white. At least the flashbacks should have been—but I did get to work with Anthony Perkins, who is a wonderful, wonderful actor.
G: Yeah. And like I say, it's an interesting little piece of that history.
OH: Yes. Exactly. And I think I did the best I could do with it. You know, I certainly had a ball playing such a mean person. And you know, after some of the scenes I would say "Henry, please. I'm not like this. I'm a great mom, you know." And he'd laugh. In fact, I e-mailed Henry last year. He sent me an e-mail of his little girl. Because he and his wife Marie had a beautiful little daughter. And he was in Germany somewhere. Really just a—he should have—he should be working all the time, Henry—he's such a good actor.
G: Now, another little show-biz history that you brushed against was when you worked with Bette Davis on Death on the Nile.
OH: A never-ending film, I tell you. That was, out of all of my projects—I had the worst time on that film. I was fighting my own demons at the time and, you know, I have the agoraphobia that I've had all my life. Now, I'm well. I cope with it. And it's just fine. But my panic attacks were awful at that time. You know, I had no business going on a set. I hadn't left my house for months before I did Death on the Nile. You know, the whole thing was just—and Bette Davis, we were all—I took it because I said, "My God. When am I going to get the chance to work with people like David Niven and Bette Davis and Peter Ustinov and Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith?" And I mean—just, God, you know? And so I took the part, but I was really in no shape to do it because of the agoraphobia. So I was on all kinds of like medication—Nardil, it was called. And just, ohh, the whole experience. It was very hard. And John Guillerman, the director, was not the nicest person.
OH: So he'd like shout on the set. And all these seasoned veterans would be, like, quaking in their boots. And he was so charming and nice when you met him, but when he was on the set, I think the pressure got to him. But I hit it off really well with David Niven. And Peter Ustinov, as well, was very special. David Niven had me in hysterics. And we couldn't look at each other without getting into giggling fits. And he'd say, "Olivia, you're like a cross between Loretta Young and Merle Oberon. You remind me of the two of them pushed together." You know, which was a great compliment.
G: Yeah. Not bad.
OH: And he said, "You know what, darling? I cannot make eye contact with you because you make me laugh. So what should we do?" And I said, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll look at your chin, and you look at my forehead when we have close-ups together." And we had some scenes together. And of course, John Guillerman—God forbid we should giggle on his time. But I loved working with David Niven. And then after that, I got his book The Moon's a Balloon—at London airport, coming back to L.A. And I laughed. I read the whole book all the flight. I was on the floor in laughter. Such a brilliant book. Such a funny, nice gentleman.
G: Now you ended up on Bette Davis' bad side, right?
OH: Everybody did. All the females.
G: Yeah. She had a reputation for that.
OH: But I don't know why. We all said, "Oh my God. We get to meet the great Bette Davis." She was just—she was horrible. And yet, she's one of my favorite actresses. You know, she's classic, and we all couldn't wait to meet her. And, you know, when one of the younger actresses had a close up, she'd sit behind the camera and try to psych you out. Just horribly. And by the end of the film, even the crew didn't like her. Nobody liked her. She was just not a nice, giving human being. But I think, to her defense, she came from that old Hollywood where, I guess, people didn't help each other, you know?
G: Yeah. She had to fight her way.
OH: Yes. And she was one of the greatest American actresses of all time. But, let me tell you. I wouldn't want to work with her again.
G: Heh, heh. Well on a more positive note—
OH: Angela Lansbury was fantastic. An absolute lady.
G: Well, you got to play a —you've done a lot of films with a religious side to them. You played the Virgin Mary. You played Esther. You did a film based on one of Pope John Paul's plays.
OH: Yes. The Jeweller's Shop.
G: Yes, The Jeweller's Shop. And then, you finally got to play, after over twenty years of thinking about it, Mother Teresa.
OH: Dreaming about it and wanting to play it and Mother herself approved me to play her. You know, she had—and Jacqueline Onassis in one interview said, "You know, if any actress plays you, Mother, it should be Olivia Hussey."
G: And the script that you ended up filming—was that close to the script that—I read that Mother Teresa actually approved the script, as well or initialed it.
OH: No, she approved one of the scripts of a production that almost happened fifteen years ago—and then fell apart because they wanted to replace me with—I don't remember who it was. I think it was Cher or somebody. And Michael Anderson, the director, said, "No, no." And the whole thing fell apart . It obviously wasn't meant to be at that time, you know? I mean, I told Franco years ago, I wanted Franco to do it. I wanted him to do the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And he'd say, "Oh, darling. I don't want to go to India. It's too difficult." So he wouldn't think about it. But I think it would have been just a masterpiece if he'd done it.
G: And what was your physical approach to the role?
OH: Um, I think because I didn't physically resemble her, it wasn't really physical. It was more coming from my heart. But I don't know what it was about—well, when I did Jesus of Nazareth, so many interviewers would say, "Well, my God, you've played Juliet. Now you've played Mary. What do you do after Mary? How do you follow that?" And I said, "I'd like to play Mother Teresa of Calcutta." So for years, that's all I was saying. I've got interviews of me fifteen years ago saying, "I want to play Mother Teresa of Calcutta, you know, because, out of all the women in the world, she puts her love into action and she's changed so many lives. And she's such a good human being. And that's who I'd love to play next."
G: I'm glad that worked out for you.
OH: Yes, and it was a dream come true for me. And I was deathly ill through the whole shooting. We shot fourteen hours a day. and I felt the spirit—I mean, the whole production became like a family again. And those roles come few and far between. So that's why I don't work a lot now. Because there really isn't that much out there for older actresses.
G: And when you choose, you want to know that you're going to do something that's worth your time.
OH: Yes. I mean, once in a while I've made a few mistakes here and there, but it's always been for the right reasons. I mean, I made a movie that's always on Showtime right now called Headspace. And it's not a very good film. But you know what? Andrew called me. He was twenty-four years old. A new, young producer-director. He said, "I really want you in my movie. I just—you know, this is like my third attempt at—" You know, and he got Sean Young. He got Dee Wallace. He just—he just talked us into it.
OH: You know. And who doesn't want to encourage a new young director? A new young actor, if it's something that makes sense. But, you know, it was hardly the best film.
G:Now you have your own product line.
OH: Yes, my new passion is my kaftans and my tunics: Olivia the Collection. I forgot all about that. But I've been working for two years on this line. And they're things that make women, no matter what age or what size, feel beautiful. It's OliviaHusseyCollection.com. We're actually going in February to the Magic Show in Las Vegas where all the people come from all over the world to put in orders and things. And I'm making some public appearances there to promote it. And I'm leaving there to fly to San Francisco to do this and then going back to the Magic Show. I'm very excited about it. It's my new passion.
G: Well, lastly, your personal motto is "Have the confidence to be your own person."
G: Who have you discovered yourself to be over the years?
OH: Over the years? Well, now I feel better about myself than I've ever felt. It's been a very long road for me because of, you know, my self-esteem issues, and I had a really tough beginning—and taken from my homeland and my Dad. You know, you grow up without one parent and you always have something missing.
OH: But the whole spiritual side of me—my meditations every day—are fantastic. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I really have found—I love going to meditation meetings and that's really been—that's the focus of my life now more than anything is just feeling good about who I am right here, right now. Because, really, it's pointless thinking about yesterday because that's gone and we can't change it. It's ridiculous to think about tomorrow because you really don't know if you are going to be here. So to live in the moment as much as you can is really the most important thing—to just not take it all so seriously. You know, to start just really thanking the universe for this day—for being in this body—here and now and just, you know, having a lot of forgiveness. Like that.
G: Well, I wish all the best to you and your family. Thanks for taking the time out.
OH: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you, Peter—God bless.