Jacqueline Bisset Interview: An Intimate Conversation with a Hollywood Legend
Image attributed to Jacqueline Bisset
Jacqueline Bisset has been an international film star since the 1960s and has worked with directors John Huston, George Cukor and Roman Polanski, to name a few, and her co-stars have included Anthony Quinn, Paul Newman, Nick Nolte, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.
Film appearances include The Knack … and How to Get It (uncredited), Cul-de-sac, Casino Royale, The Cape Town Affair, The Detective, Bullitt, Airport, Murder on the Orient Express, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Thief Who Came to Dinner, The Deep, Swing, Two Jacks, and Welcome to New York.
“I only cared about getting free food in those days. I did a couple of more extra-type things. But the most interesting of the ones I got was a part in a Roman Polanski film called Cul-de-sac. It was really eye opening and brilliant. He was brilliant. The actors were brilliant. I thought, ‘Golly. This is really interesting. Maybe I could try and be in this business more seriously.’”
Bisset’s latest movie, Miss You Already, follows two best friends as they navigate life’s highs and lows, to include a devastating diagnosis of cancer. It was released in the United States November 6, 2015. The film also stars Toni Collette, Drew Barrymore, Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine and was directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in Miss You Already?
Jacqueline Bisset: I was in London, and my agent mentioned there was some interest in me for the part, and I said, “Well, I was just heading out back to LA, but I’ll take a meeting.” When I heard the director was Catherine Hardwicke, I was interested because I’d seen the film Thirteen which I thought was very good. This script was fun and sad as well. I thought it was a mixture, but my role was sort of upbeat in a way, yet touching. I was thinking about doing another movie at the time which was rather depressing, but Miss You Already, even though it was a cancer story, was predominantly about friendship. Both. Obviously both.
I met with Catherine, and Toni Collette was there. She’d come for a wig fitting, and I just thought, “Gosh. She’s really special.” There was something about her, and yeah, I could play her mother. I didn’t decide then, but I thought I’d rather do that film than the other one I was talking about doing. So there you go. I was happy to shoot something in England, which is my country. I haven’t done much shooting there, and it wasn’t too long. You know, you have to consider all the different details that fit into one’s life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe Catherine Hardwicke said that you had input into your character Miranda?
Jacqueline Bisset: Did I? I don’t remember that. I felt that she should be as she was written, and that’s the way I felt it came together. It was not a good relationship between Miranda and her daughter. She was a mother who was sort of a bit distracted and a bit vain, always saying something about how she looks. She was also quite fun. I don’t think her daughter knew her, and she ultimately did not know her daughter that well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Had you previously worked with Drew Barrymore?
Jacqueline Bisset: No, but I met Drew when she was a little girl. She came up to me at an event one day and said she was a fan of mine. She was incredibly sweet, just adorable. When I joined the cast, Drew had not been cast. They didn’t know who would be playing that part. There seemed to be a change of casting. I guess the other actor didn’t want to do it or something. I don’t know. But Drew was not in place when I agreed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you had friends or family that had cancer or lost anyone close to you from the disease?
Jacqueline Bisset: Oh yeah. I’ve lost quite a few people. I’ve also been through a very long friendship with someone who had cancer. She went through almost 30 years with cancer and made it into her 80s with extraordinary spirit and determination and was very productive in that period of her life. Extraordinary. It really sped up her creative juices to get to write and do things that she’d not focused on completely before.
It was astounding to watch her energy in spite of all the treatments and everything. It was up and down, of course, completely up and down. But some people make it. Some people catch it quick enough and live through it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your mother had Alzheimer’s disease?
Jacqueline Bisset: Mommy had Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis also. She had both. She was a handful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were the primary caregiver?
Jacqueline Bisset: I was, for almost 40 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did that affect your career and personal life?
Jacqueline Bisset: It was a lot of running around, a lot of moving around. I never thought, when it happened, that this would go on like this. When she got older, she had multiple sclerosis and was paralyzed. I was 15 at the time, and that’s where it all started. She went in and out of that illness which can paralyze you and make your balance very bad. She went blind at one point briefly, in and out of that. But we discovered all that together and really didn’t know where that was going to go, and I certainly didn’t think I would be in it.
For the first few years, it was a day at a time, and I was really looking forward to having my own life more. I worked really hard. I am a pretty focused person, and I exhausted myself, quite honestly, a lot of the time. She had early dementia. It’s a step-by-step thing. If I’d been told that I would have been looking after my mother for 40 years, I don’t know what I would’ve done. But somehow I managed, and I managed to have men in my life who were sympathetic.
She was a hoot, you know. She was quite funny. So the men were good sports about it, and I just really realized that you can’t have people in your life that don’t get it if you’re in that situation. You’ve got to have people who have a sense of humor and who are kind. You can’t have people being snobbish about being around somebody who’s not well or doing things that aren’t appropriate. Mommy would do things that weren’t appropriate at times, and you would need to say, “This person’s not well.” You’d just try and get on with keeping them clean and safe.
I think you have to go through a very big journey in your own self to not worry about what people think because people do judge, and they don’t really like being around people who are often unwell or who have dementia. You just find your way through it gradually. I don’t regret the whole journey. It just made it a bit difficult to have a private life at times. But somehow I got through it.
Somehow in the presence of losing her memory, she forgot a lot of the bad things in her life, and on some level, she was really quite blissed out by the end. She’d forgotten about her marriage being not good, and she’d forgotten a lot of things. She eventually had a kind of artificial fantasy life, and we just went with it. There’s no point in correcting somebody who keeps repeating the same things. You just have to breathe deeply and not get upset (laughs). It’s very hard to learn to be with somebody like that.
Everybody’s been around people who have seen this aging process, but the thing is that she was relatively young when this all started, so it was difficult. My parents weren’t really pleased with me making films, but she was proud of me, in and out of her consciousness. My parents gave me a lot of good stuff over my education. Some of it was in reaction to what they did for me. I went the opposite way which was actually good, and some of it was really just good common sense. I think it gave me quite a strong backbone for the things in my career and life in general.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you ever regret not having children?
Jacqueline Bisset: No, not really. I regret it sometimes. But on the general level, I couldn’t have handled anymore than I handled. Mommy would’ve had to be put in a home, and I just couldn’t have done it. I didn’t have any particular desire to have children when I was young. I was really wanting to work, and I felt like I had a rather large baby in my life (laughs). That was very time consuming. I was the mother. I was a maternal creature in that relationship.
I’m not saying that when I see very sweet children, I don’t think, “Oh how lovely.” But I think we all have different jobs in life, and that seems to have been my job. My brother didn’t focus on it at all. He was oblivious of what happened at home basically. He got married and went off. I think girls sometimes do get to do these jobs in families. Often one woman or one person gets to be the caretaker, and the others sort of go off with their own lives. I’m not sure it’s terribly fair in many families, but that’s how it is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you audition for The Knack … and How to Get It (1965)?
Jacqueline Bisset: Yes, I did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But it wasn’t your big break in show business.
Jacqueline Bisset: No. I wouldn’t call it my big break. What it did do was make me think, “What a mad business this is!” We were all dressed the same. There were about 20 girls, and we were all wearing little gray skirts and white jumpers and were all outside the Royal Albert Hall in London in this scene that made no sense whatsoever, and I had no idea what kind of a film it was. I thought, “This must be a real ‘C’ or ‘D’ movie. What is this twaddle?”
Charlotte Rampling was also in that film, and the English actress, Jane Birkin, was also amongst the girls. We didn’t know we’d have careers at that point. I had been very interested in cinema, but I was interested in French and Italian cinema, so I thought this was absolutely rubbish. But when I saw it, I was absolutely astonished that it was an interesting film (laughs).
I only cared about getting free food in those days. I did a couple of more extra-type things. But the most interesting of the ones I got was a part in a Roman Polanski film called Cul-de-sac. It was really eye-opening and brilliant. He was brilliant. The actors were brilliant. I thought, “Golly. This is really interesting. Maybe I could try and be in this business more seriously.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that the first time you felt you might become a successful actor?
Jacqueline Bisset: Well, no, I had done some extra things, but I didn’t feel like I had any particular instinct. I was interested in drama, and I liked Shakespeare, but I didn’t allow myself to think I could be an actor. It was just too much away from my milieu and education and everything. I wanted very much to earn money because I knew I would have to look after my mother. I could feel it coming. So that was a bit of my motivation in the very beginning, but then I really felt it was a job that I would be interested in. The Knack also contributed to that, but I didn’t believe I could do it.
Auditioning was painful for me. I was always quite shy and didn’t have a lot of belief in myself. But I felt I had a certain degree of knowledge about life, which was really odd at that time. Not about my life, but about life. I was quite responsible probably because I was looking after mommy. I’d already been looking after her for five or six years by that time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can’t believe it has been 35 years since Steve McQueen passed away.
Jacqueline Bisset: Is it really?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the experience of working on Bullitt (1968)?
Jacqueline Bisset: The director, Peter Yates, was a very civilized man. I got to know he and his wife a little. My part was very small. I was in LA waiting to shoot, and they were up there in San Francisco. Peter said, “Come up for a few days and learn what it’s like to be living in San Francisco.” Well, I didn’t know what that meant. What do you mean learn what it’s like? He said, “You can get an apartment and live here and see what life is like.”
I went up there and tried to drive a stick shift car and had a horrible time on those slopes, trying not to go down backwards. Every time there was a traffic light on the corner, I was nerve-racked by that. Then I’d spend a few days and eat with the director, producer and sometimes with Steve. We’d go to restaurants, and then I’d go back to LA again and wait. About ten weeks went by, and I thought, “This role is being removed.” I thought I was being taken out of the film because it never happened when they said it would.
Then finally I went up there, took an apartment and tried to do what the director said without any real knowledge of what he was talking about (laughs). Steve was really very American and would do “jive talk” in conversations. I really didn’t know what “soul chicks” and “dudes” and all that stuff was. He would rush up and say a few words and then rush off again because it was his first co-production with his own company.
Steve was very manic actually in a way. Not when he was working and actually shooting, but when he was in that other kind of co-producer type mood. He’d get on his bike and take off. He didn’t seem to want to be spotted. Steve reminded me of some sort of a cat, taking off into the alleys. That was the feeling I had about him. If he’d been an animal, he would’ve been some sort of a cat, I think.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it true that you did not approve of the infamous t-shirt photo taken during filming of The Deep?
Jacqueline Bisset: Yes, I didn’t know at the time. The first weeks of shooting, nobody had any rushes. I was told to wear that. I was told that when people dive, that’s what they wear. I did what the designer told me to do. I thought, “Okay. Well, we’re underwater. Big deal. You won’t see anything underwater.” When I put it on, it was dry. Then we got into the water.
When we came out of the water, there was always somebody there with a dressing gown, a robe, to put around me so that this would not happen, and I felt pretty secure. They were always there. There were a couple of scenes where we came out of the water at the boat, and there was a wet t-shirt look, but it was not focused on at all.
Then when they saw the rushes which was a couple of weeks later, for whatever reason, they were thinking that the girl who would be doubling for me would be doing much more than she did. But they said we looked so different underwater that they wanted me to do a lot more than I bargained for. I hadn’t seen the film, but I was getting very little feedback from that level and thought it was all in hand.
I knew they weren’t allowed to take pictures of me underwater. There were no photographers underwater except for the National Geographic guy who was there photographing. I don’t know for sure, but I believe the photos that were taken of me and then used, were taken by the National Geographic photographer. I don’t know who else had a camera.
When the story came out, I was upset, very upset. I thought it had nothing to do with the film. I had a really dangerous time underwater at times during filming. I’d almost drowned at one point. But I don’t want to go on and on about this. I really don’t even like to keep reading about it. Let’s move on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s turn our attention to television. I did enjoy your appearances on Rizzoli & Isles a couple of years ago.
Jacqueline Bisset: Oh did you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you interested in doing more TV?
Jacqueline Bisset: Well, I wasn’t thrilled with my appearances on that show. I liked doing the Nip/Tuck thing. That was really interesting and fun to me. That was an extraordinary experience to not know what you’re going to be playing, not to know even what sexuality you were from episode to episode. That was quite an extraordinary way of working. The script would just change direction completely from episode to episode, and it was pretty wild. But people liked me in that character a lot.
It felt fairly daring and amusing also even though she was a terrible woman (laughs). Ryan Murphy, the creator of Nip/Tuck, is a very unique guy, and he has a vision which is very different than most people. You just have to jump forward and go for it. You can’t do too much thinking about it. You sign up for something, and you don’t have any say in the matter. But some TV films I’ve done, I really enjoyed.
I’ve done Anna Karenina and Napoleon and Josephine. I did a film called Forbidden which was done in Berlin. I played a German countess during World War II. They were really good projects. I love shooting fast. I like that because I’m ready when I get there in the morning. I don’t need to have it spread out over endless hours. I like to get it done rather fast, as long as they’re not changing the dialogue a lot. In some series, the actors are never able to relax because they keep changing the dialogue, and then you’re in a state of complete anxiety because you don’t know if you’ll remember it or learn it well. If you do learn it, and they change it, you can get muddled. That’s horrible.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I liked your portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Jacqueline Bisset: Did you? Which one?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story (2003).
Jacqueline Bisset: Yeah. I did play her more accurately in that one. In the first one, The Greek Tycoon, I didn’t study her. I didn’t know if we were really trying to be her. It wasn’t like we were absolutely playing these characters. It was like that was the story. But when Tony Quinn turned up on set the first day in Greece looking absolutely like Aristotle Onassis, I said, “Oh my God. If he’s playing him, I’m obviously playing her.” But I hadn’t studied her accent or anything.
I was just playing her as a woman. But I was wearing her type of sunglasses, and I was being dressed by Halston, so there were all kinds of inconsistencies. You’re not really playing her, but Halston’s dressed you, and we’d like you to wear those kind of sunglasses and stuff. So it was a lot of phony baloney actually. But the second time I was asked to play her in American Prince, I did try and emulate her. I read about her then which I had not done before. I got to be interested in her, and I found her very interesting, and I also began to understand her psychology a little bit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How unkind is Hollywood toward women and older actors especially?
Jacqueline Bisset: That’s been going on as far back as I can remember. They’re talking about it more now and relevant to women who aren’t getting any jobs in directing. It’s completely uneven in the system. I try not to think about that too much because I’d just get into a depressed mood thinking, “Does it mean that men don’t like women who are older? Does it mean they just don’t know who they are? Does it mean we’re not a good story?” I think we’re all of the good things. Women are very interesting. They have great stories. They carry the world in their arms, you know. So it’s a sorry state that they’re ignored on many levels.
Of course, there’s also economics. I think men say, “If women make lots of money, they’ll be working more, rather than what they bring into the business.” I don’t think that’s true. Catherine Hardwicke has made a lot of money, but I don’t think she finds it easy to get the money for projects. Kathryn Bigelow did wonderful work. I don’t know how easy she finds it to get money for financing. But in terms of acting, I just feel you have to do smaller projects. What do you do if you have lemons? You make lemonade. You make it work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there projects you are working on now?
Jacqueline Bisset: No. Several years ago, I made a film with Dennis Hopper called The Last Film Festival. It turned out that he died before the film was finished. My director, Linda Yellen, had the real difficult job of pulling the whole thing together, and we finished it, and she has just finished it.
It’s a comedy, and I play sort of a glamorous comedic actor actually. Dennis plays the producer, and I’m his ex-wife. Supposedly, there are 4,000 film festivals in the world, and we’ve been unable to find a good place to show our film. We end up in the worst film festival that exists. It’s a comedy, as I said, and that’s hopefully what’s coming out next. But I don’t have anything on the books to work at specifically.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you spend most of your time?
Jacqueline Bisset: I’m sort of trying to educate myself in lots of things. I’m trying to handle the anxiety I get from the Internet (laughs). You know, all that mail and stuff. It takes up a lot of time. There are all these things to read. I have a friend who’s very bright, and he sends me a mass of stuff. That’s like my homework every day. It’s about politics and history and all kinds of things. I try to go through them. I really have to try and will myself to do it because I know it’s broadening my perspective.
I cook a lot and look after my health and house. I have a house and a garden. The day goes by just boom! I really go basically flat out every day. I’m very busy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you live in England or LA?
Jacqueline Bisset: I live in LA.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you miss England?
Jacqueline Bisset: I go back and forth. I go to Europe. I miss the memory of the England that I knew. It’s all very different now. Not in the countryside, but the cities are very different. I don’t know. I like living with the light. I love the light of California. It’s very addictive.
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