Pasatiempo - - FRONT PAGE - Robert Nott The New Mex­i­can

Jac­que­line Bisset laughs — a lot. In be­tween re­flect­ing on sub­jects as var­ied as her mother and Dean Martin, the legendary per­former told Pasatiempo about a film she ap­peared in over 40 years ago, Day for Night, and an­other that was filmed about seven years ago called The Last Film Fes­ti­val. Both movies screen at this year’s Santa Fe In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val, where Bisset is hon­ored with a Life­time Achieve­ment Award on Satur­day, Oct. 22.

The seventy-two-year-old English­woman has been act­ing in mo­tion pic­tures for about 50 years, start­ing with small parts in big films like Casino Royale (1967), Bullitt (1968), and The De­tec­tive (1968). She has worked with di­rec­tors François Truf­faut, John Hus­ton, Ge­orge Cukor, and Ro­man Polan­ski, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the Bri­tish tele­vi­sion mini-se­ries Danc­ing on the Edge (2013). Many peo­ple may still re­mem­ber her in a wet T-shirt for a film called The Deep, way back in 1977, but she has fought to es­tab­lish her­self as a se­ri­ous ac­tor — with a good sense of hu­mor.

In Day for Night, Truf­faut’s comedic love poem to mak­ing movies, Bisset plays an ac­tress ap­pear­ing in a do­mes­tic drama that looks, well, not very good. It’s a movie about peo­ple who love mak­ing movies so much that they cast aside lovers, friends, health, and ev­ery­thing else to make sure the pic­ture gets made. In Linda Yellen’s The Last Film Fes­ti­val, Bisset plays an ag­ing Ital­ian screen queen who at­tends a film fes­ti­val where her lat­est project — an apoc­a­lyp­tic en­vi­ron­men­tal drama — is go­ing to be screened for the first (and per­haps the last) time.

Pasatiempo spoke with Bis­sett by phone from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion, since she called us and all the caller iden­ti­fi­ca­tion said was “anony­mous.” Pasatiempo: When you were a lit­tle girl, what did you want to be when you grew up? Jac­que­line Bisset: I wanted to dance around. [She laughs.] I was al­ways lis­ten­ing to mu­sic. I al­ways

had a sense of rhythm and noise. My mother would en­cour­age me, re­ally, and leave me there with mu­sic go­ing. It was a lot of clas­si­cal mu­sic, and I was leap­ing around. It was a small house, so it was small leaps. I was pretty car­ried away by that. Pasa: How re­al­is­tic is Day for Night when it comes to cap­tur­ing the day-to-day as­pect of mak­ing movies? Bisset: The things he [Truf­faut] talks about are pretty true. I’m not sure we were al­ways as ob­sessed with the process in terms of my char­ac­ter . ... But it had a lot of truth to it — the process, the com­ing to­gether, and the cer­tain kind of joy that con­nects peo­ple is some­thing rather ad­dic­tive. Pasa: How did you find Truf­faut as a di­rec­tor? Bisset: He was or­ga­nized and pretty pre­cise . ... He worked with all of us prior to the be­gin­ning of the shoot. There is lot of irony in that ev­ery­one in the film is telling the story. Ev­ery­one says this is a film about their char­ac­ter — they see it from their point of view, which is some­thing we all tend to do. He was quite jolly, re­ally. He knew a lot of the peo­ple on the film — there was a ca­ma­raderie be­tween him and his group — and that made me a frac­tion ner­vous. My French was not very good, so when we were all sit­ting to­gether and eat­ing, I couldn’t get to that won­der­ful place where you can use your sense of hu­mor in that lan­guage, so I some­times felt left out. Pasa: Jump­ing ahead to The Last Film Fes­ti­val, Den­nis Hop­per seems pretty happy and lively in that film, which was the last project he made be­fore he passed away. [Hop­per died of prostate can­cer in 2010, shortly after film­ing fin­ished.] Bisset: He seemed very happy, very fit — there was no sign of him be­ing ill. That was quite a shock to all of us when he died. Pasa: In both Day for Night and The Last Film Fes­ti­val, you play an ac­tress. What is that like — an ac­tress play­ing an ac­tress? Bisset: I wasn’t in­ter­ested in play­ing just a plain ac­tress. I wanted to find some­thing fun­nier . ... In The Last Film Fes­ti­val, it was sort of a par­ody of an ac­tress. I thou h

if she could be Ital­ian, that would be in­ter­est­ing. That was a char­ac­ter I used to do at home with my mother when I was quite young. I was about fifteen when my mother got ill, so she was sta­tion­ary, and I would try to amuse her when I was around her. So “The Ital­ian” was one of a cou­ple of char­ac­ters I would play . ... I sug­gested it to [di­rec­tor] Linda Yellen, and she said it might be fun.

Pasa: How im­por­tant is it for you to have fun when you are mak­ing a film?

Bisset: It’s not al­ways about fun. Some­times it’s about get­ting deeply into what you want to do. It’s cer­tainly not good if you are mis­er­ably down. Sets can be in­cred­i­bly bor­ing, and when things are go­ing very slowly, some­times you lose en­ergy. You ask your­self, “How can I keep my en­ergy, where can I go, what can I do?” It’s like hav­ing a car with an ex­tra gear — you need that ex­tra gear. I have good en­ergy. I try to con­serve it as I get older. I used to give up a lot of en­ergy talk­ing to the crew and chat­ting and hav­ing fun, ex­actly that, and then I’d be tired when they got to me at the end of the day.

When I did Air­port (1970) with Dean Martin and Burt Lan­caster, it was like work­ing in two dif­fer­ent movies. Dean was con­stantly jok­ing around, and Burt’s set was com­pletely quiet. You could hear a pin drop — he was much more se­ri­ous. I didn’t have scenes with Burt, but I came on the set when he was work­ing to watch. The ac­tors do set the mood of the piece. It can be heavy, and it can be light. Pasa: What do you like best about act­ing?

Bisset: I very much en­joy the prepa­ra­tion — think­ing about this per­son and think­ing how they live, and what do they do, and how do they dress, and get­ting that to­gether and talk­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally about what it’s all about. Break­fast is fun — early morn­ing break­fast, es­pe­cially when there’s cold weather and a cup of cof­fee and a big Mex­i­can sand­wich, which is what you get of­fered in Cal­i­for­nia. That’s less fun in France: You get a dry crois­sant, no but­ter, and a cup of black cof­fee. [She laughs.] It’s a great feel­ing when ev­ery­one is bustling and do­ing their thing, that feel­ing of an­tic­i­pa­tion and that en­ergy all comes to­gether, and it’s lovely. If you get it right, of course, you feel you have cracked it.

Pasa: You’ve worked with some ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple. Were you ever in awe?

Bisset: I don’t like to watch peo­ple show off . ... In nor­mal life, a lot of peo­ple think that the peo­ple who are hammy at par­ties — the ones who are show­ing off and be­ing the life and soul of the party — would be good ac­tors, but that is re­ally not the case. Most good ac­tors are quiet and con­cen­trated. They have their mo­ments of be­ing fun . ... Dean Martin was al­ways jok­ing around, but that was the char­ac­ter he made for him­self. He was se­ri­ous about the work, he didn’t make it seem dif­fi­cult. He liked to make peo­ple laugh, and he liked to be light and amus­ing. So he was pretty con­sis­tently like that all the time. I think that was his pub­lic per­sona.

Pasa: You brought up Dean Martin, so I want to bring up his coun­ter­part of sorts — Frank Si­na­tra, with whom you worked in The De­tec­tive.

Bisset: I was told Si­na­tra would only do one or two takes, but that wasn’t true. He was help­ful to me, kind, and very pro­tec­tive. And he de­fended me when the writer was get­ting a bit dodgy with me. He was most def­i­nitely se­ri­ous about the work . ... Peo­ple were pro­ject­ing upon him things that were not true. I re­mem­ber I had to deal with a wig in that film, and I was told by peo­ple around me, “It’s got to be per­fect. He won’t wait if there’s a prob­lem with it.” And that at­ti­tude never came up once . ... Pre­sum­ably at some point, maybe, he had been high-strung, but he was not like that on this set. He had been go­ing through prob­lems with his wife, Mia Far­row, and I had re­placed her in the film, so it wasn’t a jolly time for him. But it didn’t show in his work.

Pasa: I found this quote from you from an in­ter­view in the late 1970s — which I don’t ex­pect you to re­mem­ber — in which you talked about al­ways look­ing back over your shoul­der at your pri­vate life and won­der­ing about the price you paid to be an ac­tress. Do you re­mem­ber that?

Bisset: I don’t rec­og­nize that quote. I don’t know if you give up any­thing to be an ac­tor. You give up some de­gree of — what’s the op­po­site of dis­ci­pline? You have to keep your dis­ci­pline to­gether. You have to learn to for­get about your­self to a large de­gree. I think you need a de­gree of com­fort so you can con­cen­trate, and I think you need en­ergy. You don’t gen­er­ally go out all night and go drink­ing and car­ry­ing on un­til four in the morn­ing when you are work­ing. You have to try and take care of your­self and be alert. And do your home­work. When I first started, I didn’t know that yet. I would be out un­til four in the morn­ing! [She laughs.] Pasa: Do you look back much?

Bisset: I look back a lit­tle bit. I can’t believe what I have been in­volved in . ... But I don’t re­ally hang onto it. It’s not what stays with me. What stays with me are the is­sues faced by the char­ac­ters in the films, the mo­ments where you over­come fears and you make steps for­ward, — or maybe back­ward. Hope­fully for­ward. Pasa: What’s next for you, in terms of film?

Bisset: I just got an of­fer this morn­ing to play a ninety-two-year old. Ninety-two! Oh lordy, lordy. That may be a bit much. I’ve played mid-eight­ies, in a film with Jonathan Win­ters (Swing, 2003), and he made me laugh a lot. He made me laugh rather more than I needed to, be­cause his hu­mor was wicked, and I was made up as an old lady, and my makeup kept crack­ing . ... I had to get away from him be­cause my skin would burst through be­cause he made me laugh so much.

What makes them think I can do a ninety-two-yearold woman? Ah, well. Maybe there’s some com­edy in this.

Stills from The Last Film Fes­ti­val (2016); above, Jac­que­line Bisset in Monaco in 2013 (AP photo, Lionel Ciron­neau)

With Jean-Pierre Léaud (left) and François Truf­faut in Day for Night (1973)

In High Sea­son (1987)

With Dean Martin in Air­port (1970)

With Frank Si­na­tra in The De­tec­tive (1968)

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