Theresa Russell is attracted to the very things that repel most actors. In 1976’s The Last Tycoon, her first movie (and Elia Kazan’s last), she is unafraid of seeming to do very little. Young actresses like to show you they can act by really “acting,” but Russell, at only eighteen, knows what it means to be simple—and Kazan knows she knows. His close-ups foreground a girl of California gold darkened by knowing eyes. It’s like two different people looking at you through a single face. And just when you think she can’t possibly be that smart or strong, her voice breaks in the middle of a line like Barbara Stanwyck’s when she looks at Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity, and we forgive her everything, take the blame, and sign up for more (almost). In Bad Timing (1980), she works from the epicenter of a carnal earthquake and never once has to brace herself on secondhand, movie sexuality. Her moves are all her own. The result is something like Brando in Last Tango in Paris—too real to watch and not watch. There again you see what Kazan saw: the wilderness inside. Nicolas Roeg, her husband-director, saw it too. In (1985’s) Insignificance, their third collaboration, she plays Marilyn Monroe.
Sam Wasson: You’ve told this casting-couch story about Sam Spiegel, producer of The Last Tycoon. In the versions I’ve read, he basically threatens to destroy your career if you don’t sleep with him. You’re eighteen or so, without a single credit, and he’s this titanic power—and you reject him. With that rejection, it’s like you’re rejecting—I hate to say it—the Hollywood way.
Theresa Russell: I didn’t have anything to compare it to other than I knew that I didn’t . . .
SW: You weren’t going there.
TR: Yeah, exactly. If it meant the end of my career, then I don’t have a career. Okay. I always had other options. I’m good with animals. I had other things I wanted to do. I had to take that gamble because there was no choice, basically, in my mind. My boyfriend at that time, my first love—he was a primal therapist—he helped me a lot during that.
SW: This story about Spiegel combined with the movies you’ve picked all point to a quality you have, on-screen and off—zero tolerance for bullshit. Do you have any theories about how you came to have that kind of self-possession?
TR: No, I really don’t. I think I was born that way, basically. It’s slight madness, perhaps. My attitude about life in general has always been a little off, I suppose, compared to other people. It seems like the older I get, anyway, that’s true. [Laughs] But later on, I had to do shit things just to pay the bills and pay school fees, which was hard, but in some ways it taught me some good things too.
SW: To what extent do you think having a relationship with a primal scream therapist played a part in—
TR: In acting? [Laughs] Oh . . . I think I was that way anyway, but that did help in my acting, I have to say. Doing that kind of self-exploratory stuff. I think it helped me be less afraid in my work. Not necessarily in my life. I mean, my dad left at an early age, and I left home at sixteen.
SW: In your mind, does the primal scream connect to the Method?
TR: I think so, yeah. In that regard it correlated completely with my training. And it just made acting less scary. A lot of actors are afraid to go into those darker places of personal experience. Early memories, traumatic situations. That pain. So in that way, the primal scream showed me I could go there and come out okay.
SW: Let’s talk a little about Insignificance. Was this a part that immediately jumped at you?
TR: Actually, originally I turned it down. Here’s what happened. [Producer] Alexander Stewart kind of approached me before he even approached Nic [Roeg] to do it. I don’t know if Nic will even remember that, because he kind of rearranges history sometimes—like his movies [Laughs]—but that is in fact how it was. Maybe he wanted Nic all along, I don’t know, but he came in that way. I knew the writer of the play [Terry Johnson] didn’t want me to do it. He wanted Judy Davis, who had done the play in London. I think they were kind of an item for a while. So he was not happy with me doing it. Also, there had been a slew of Marilyn things going on, and Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and I was just like, Oh, God, I just can’t even think of going there, it’s just too silly. I just don’t want to.
SW: What changed?
TR: I loved the play. I just thought it was a terrific play. But to be Marilyn seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how I would begin to go there in a way that wasn’t a caricature—so obviously it was just easier to say no! But then when Nic wanted to do it, that’s when it got to another level.
SW: Did your own experience as a young woman in Hollywood, like your travails with Spiegel, give you any personal feeling for what it meant to be Marilyn Monroe? Or were those two things unrelated?
TR: They were unrelated. Once you try to start inhabiting a character, whether it’s a known character or not, those things don’t really come into play. I think also, well, my dad was a Buddhist. Maybe that had something to do with it. From an early age, I was kind of taught how the ego could be an enemy. So I guess I could incorporate that into my work as well. My process is about “I’m gonna walk in another person’s shoes.” It’s not about my ego, it’s about getting rid of it. It’s more about her past, how she became the way she was, watching a lot of her work and trying to figure out what this vulnerability was about her and the kind of pain that she was obviously in. I had an epiphany that she created herself for the audience or her men, but behind closed doors she could be who she was.
SW: Yeah, she can be this person who riffs on relativity with Einstein.
TR: Exactly. So, it didn’t have to be about her lips and her boobs and her butt and all that. I could do my interpretation of her.
SW: As the movie goes on, it seems your interpretation grows. You move from Marilyn as we knew her into your Marilyn.
TR: Absolutely. In many ways that was Nic. One of the wonderful things about working with him was you have a safety net. You don’t feel like, God, if I fall on my face they’re gonna hate me and think I’m a dumbass and I can’t act. That opens up this other area of creativity. I mean there was nothing I did that he didn’t use. He used everything!
SW: Are you a Marilyn fan?
TR: No, not really. I was more Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn. Those were more my idols growing up. [Marilyn’s] overtly sexual thing was kind of off-putting to me.
SW: When was the last time you saw Insignificance?
TR: It’s been several years at least.
SW: How do you remember it?
TR: I’m proud of it. I did what I wanted to do, whether people liked it or not.
SW: It’s a polarizing movie.
TR: Nic’s movies do that. Like with Bad Timing. People were confused by the way it was cut. But to me, it was perfectly obvious. It wasn’t written that way either; he cut it that way.
SW: He cuts the way people think. But it’s not always how they think they think.
TR: People don’t think linearly . . . You think kind of back and forth and up and down, you don’t think A-B-C, in chronological order. People had a problem with that. But now when people see it they don’t even mention that, because people are so used to that kind of cutting and that kind of grammar of film. I really think that Nic changed the grammar of film. It was ahead of its time.
SW: Were you scared making Bad Timing? The material is so challenging.
TR: And I was so young. It was like, Holy fuck. How am I gonna do this? I was all of twenty-two when I got the part.
SW: Actors talk about using the fear. Do you do that? Or do you try to throw that away and run in the opposite direction?
TR: Well, that doesn’t work for me. You just go with those instincts that your creative self is telling you to do. And if you have someone, like I found in Nic, the fear is taken away and the creativity goes full force.
SW: Can we go back to something you said about your dad? I mean the part about losing the ego. Insignificance and Bad Timing are egoless performances. You don’t really see that kind of unselfconscious acting in movies today. You see bravado, you see personality, but you don’t really see new or shocking behaviors.
TR: There’s a certain type of television acting where they don’t want egolessness, they really don’t. They want it to be a certain way with your ego up front. To me, that’s difficult to do. It’s like another technique that I had to learn.
SW: It’s like they want bullshit.
TR: Yeah, pretty much. But to me, that’s more difficult! I don’t know how to do that. [Laughs] Now that I’m fifty-four, I just feel like, “Ugh, who wants to play that game anymore?”
SW: So would it be fair to say that the singing you do with Mike Melvoin returns you to this type of performance?
TR: I’m still trying to wrestle with that one. On the one hand, singing these jazz songs feels so exposed and vulnerable as me, as Theresa. When you are singing, you are expressing yourself; you’re not hiding behind a character. I have tried to approach it like, Okay, this is this woman’s story, and I’m gonna sing this story to you, and try to kind of use that acting skill in that way, but it’s very hard to do that in a song. Is it acting? Is it me? I wrestle with that constantly.
SW: Do you think the singing Theresa Russell has given something to the acting Theresa Russell?
TR: Yeah, in some ways it has, but I won’t be able to ever get a role again where I can utilize it. Here in the U.S., there are very few of those meaty, wonderful leads for a woman of my age. They just don’t write them. But I’m never bored. I don’t miss acting a shit, I really don’t. I miss acting doing something wonderful, but if it’s not coming my way, then I don’t sit around moping about it, that’s for sure.
Sam Wasson is the author of Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.: Audrey Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the Dawn of the Modern Woman and A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. His next book, Paul on Mazursky, will be released in August. He’s currently working on a biography of Bob Fosse. www.samwasson.com