“I am having a blast”
Ahead of her first-ever Australian visit, Jane Seymour talks about love, loss and a life that has been as memorable as the romantic screen sagas that made her a star
About to visit Australia for the first time, queen of the ’80s romantic saga Jane Seymour is busier than ever and speaks of her passionate love affair with Christopher Reeve and an enduring friendship with Olivia Newton-john.
During her reign as queen of the romantic mini-series in the 1980s, there was one role that Jane Seymour tells Stellar she coveted “more than life itself”. She wanted to play Meggie Cleary, the outback Australian ingénue who has a torrid affair with Father Ralph de Bricassart in Colleen Mccullough’s The Thorn Birds.
Seymour was the producer’s favourite to play the role. In fact, in those days she was pretty much everyone’s favourite, and widely considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. She should have been a shoo-in for Meggie. But an unfortunate accident thwarted her dream.
At the time, Seymour had recently given birth to the first of her four children, daughter Katherine. She was asked to stop breastfeeding before her screen test, because it made her too voluptuous to play teenage Meggie. She dutifully did so about a month before meeting with Richard Chamberlain, who was to play Father Ralph. But on the day, her body had other ideas. “My milk came back in, all over Richard,” she tells Stellar. “Somehow I lactated onto his bare chest! It was not good – quite a puddle, you would say. It was the most embarrassing thing.”
Seymour did not get the job, and believes this was because of her involuntary lactation. To this day, she admits, “I have never seen [ The Thorn Birds]. I was so devastated that I never watched it.” Still, 35 years later she is philosophical. She went on to play Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel, while the eventual Meggie, Rachel Ward, met her future husband, Australian actor Bryan Brown, during filming. “Things are meant to be,” Seymour says now.
The eternal romantic heroine is now 66. She is still beautiful, still in demand as an actor, and still a funny, engaging raconteur. Ahead of her first visit to Australia, Seymour talks to Stellar about life as the child of a prisoner of war, her lifelong friendship with Olivia Newton-john and her passionate love affair with Christopher Reeve.
JANE SEYMOUR’S REAL name is Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg. As a kid, she was often called Frankenstein or Frankfurt, so she was willing to change it at her agent’s request: “He said it was too long, too foreign, and too difficult to spell.” She knocked back a few suggestions – Anne Frank was one of them – until they settled on Jane Seymour, not realising at first that it was the name
of King Henry VIII’S third wife. “She was the wife one no-one ever remembered,” Seymour says. “But if they had told me I would be called [King Henry VIII’S first wife] Catherine of Aragon or [his second wife] Anne Boleyn, I would have said no.”
Seymour, whose ambitions lay in ballet dancing until she was injured, was catapulted to acting stardom as a Bond girl alongside Roger Moore in the 1973 film Live And Let Die. Moore was 24 years her senior, and had been tasked to look after her by filmmaker Richard Attenborough, the father of Seymour’s first husband Michael. His note – “Please look after my daughter-in-law” – was also a tacit “Make sure you don’t touch her”. Moore obeyed.
“He was a quintessential English gentleman,” Seymour says of Moore, who died in May. “He also had a wicked sense of humour. I was 20 years old but more like a 13-year-old. I didn’t really know how to navigate that world. He was particularly kind to me.”
Seymour, who was born in England, headed to the US as her career took off. On the eve of her trans-atlantic move in the mid 1970s, she was joined at the Frankenberg family dinner by a patient of her doctor father’s, an Australian actress named Rona Newton-john. Rona was also moving to the US, so they decided to share a house. That’s how Seymour met Rona’s younger sister, a singer named Olivia. Today Seymour calls her “my closest celebrity friend”.
The challenge of mixing motherhood with show business bonded the pair. “I knew lots of other people who were mums, but not many who were dealing with the stresses of performing and travelling, and people know who you are,” Seymour says. “We really clicked. Our children became best friends, [NewtonJohn’s daughter] Chloe and [Seymour’s son] Sean. They grew up together.”
During the ’80s and ’90s, Seymour had the romantic saga market cornered. There was East Of Eden, War And Remembrance and, later, Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. But the role her fans most love – and her favourite, too – was as Elise Mckenna in time-travel romance Somewhere In Time, in which she starred alongside Christopher Reeve, already famous as Superman.
The chemistry between them sizzles onscreen, and for good reason. “We fell madly for one another when we made that film, and it was a secret we kept for a long time,” Seymour says. “We were both single at the time. I would say he was one of the great loves of my life, and definitely one of my closest friends forever.”
They could have been the Brad and Angelina of their day, but Reeve learnt his ex-girlfriend was pregnant, and felt he had to do the right thing. “He found out, and that was it [for us],” says Seymour, who named one of her sons after Reeve. “I think he tried to make it work [with his ex-girlfriend] until he couldn’t, and eventually he met [future wife] Dana, who was wonderful.
“He was a lovely man. Brilliant, too: very smart, a great concert pianist, and a funny, funny guy. He liked to do things alone – to fly alone, to sail alone, to ride horses. He was all about doing these amazing things, none of which he could do after the accident [in 1995, Reeve became tetraplegic after falling from a horse, and died in 2004]. He was very special and I was very proud of him.”
“Christopher Reeve and I fell madly for one another… I would say he was one of the great loves of my life”
SEYMOUR MIGHT HAVE been the actor in her family, but it was her mother who had a life story worthy of a film. Mieke van Trigt was born in Holland, but moved to Indonesia, then a Dutch colony, with her husband when she was 20.The marriage was abusive, and she left. But when World War II broke out she wouldn’t leave because her best friend was pregnant with twins. Van Trigt was captured, and spent three and a half years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
After the war, van Trigt worked for the Dutch Red Cross in London. She saved up for a holiday to St Tropez, where she met John Frankenberg, a former British air force soldier and a doctor. “My mother was wearing a knitted bathing suit that shrank when it went into the water,” Seymour says. “She was the first topless person in St Tropez. We like to think my mother inspired this revolution.”
Mieke and John married, and while Seymour’s mother rarely spoke about her past, the war coloured their three daughters’ lives. Her mother remained close to her friends from the camp. As Seymour recalls, “Her friends either took to some very different kind of religion, or they became very depressed; some didn’t want to live anymore.”
Because she had endured starvation, “my mother was obsessed with feeding everyone”, Seymour says. “We didn’t have much money, but if we suddenly had eight people coming over, it was nasi goreng for everyone. We were all about making food. I still grow my own food, and have chickens.”
While Seymour was shooting War And Remembrance, her parents visited her on set at Auschwitz. “We were filming brutal, realistic sequences, I was very thin at the time,” Seymour recalls. “I remember my mother turning to me and saying with tears in her eyes, ‘I am ready to go back [to Indonesia], to see where I was.’” When Seymour filmed Keys To Freedom in Malaysia, she took her parents with her. During a break they flew to Jakarta, and tracked down the jungle camps where her mother had lived.
“It was the most moving experience of my life, to watch my mother walking around, suddenly speaking fluent Bahasa Malay, landing in front of this man’s house, saying, ‘ This is where I was.’ My sister and I were trying to hold a camera, but the camera kept shaking because we were all crying.”
Seymour’s mother died in 2007, having lived long enough to watch her daughter achieve a successful career, meet her grandchildren, and pass on a wisdom particular to her generation, which had endured so much. “Friends and family were most important in her life,” Seymour said at the time of her mother’s death. “She would often remind her daughters, ‘When life is difficult, do something to help someone else, and your problems will diminish. There is always someone worse off than you.’”
Her lessons are lived by Seymour, who maintains a strong acting career but chooses not to let her life revolve around being on set. She loves philanthropy, painting and writing. Her four children are grown, and she has five grandkids, who she sees frequently. She has been married and divorced four times, but has found love again with director and producer David Green.
In November, Seymour will make her first visit to Australia for Melbourne’s La Dolce Italia festival, where she will attend the masquerade ball and do a Q&A session. She will also attend the Melbourne Cup with Green in tow. She hopes to add visits to Sydney, Uluru and north Queensland to her itinerary.
The one-time beauty queen embraces opportunities to do more, see more and live more. “I am having a blast right now,” she says. “I am busier than I’ve ever been. I love watching my children do so well, and becoming a grandparent is heavenly.
“I am really happy to be alive. It’s that time in life you realise you only have so many weeks left, although you don’t know how many. Every day is so precious. I don’t regard my age as a negative. I look upon it as an amazing time in my life.” Up Close & Personal with Jane Seymour is on November 5 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre; The Carnevale Masquerade Ball is November 6; ticketmaster.com.au; ladolceitalia.com.au.