Interview with actor Greta Scacchi
PUBLISHED: 01:26 28 April 2012 | UPDATED: 21:20 20 February 2013
Sussex actress Greta Scacchi was dubbed 'Scorchy Scacchi' in the Eighties for her nude scenes on screen. Now she's finally getting the chance to 'let it all hang out' playing movie legend Bette Davis at Brighton's Theatre Royal this month
For a decade, Greta Scacchi set pulses racing in smouldering roles which earned her the label Scorchy Scacchi. Men lusted after her, women envied her and directors clamoured to immortalise her sinuous curves on screen.
But deep down Greta was dissatisfied. Playing femme fatales was all very well, but she longed to play comedy. She felt trapped and pigeonholed. My American agent once told me I was a character actress in a beautiful body, she laughs. I always thought the scorchy label came from the mispronunciation of my name because Im much more wacky Scacki than Scorchy Scarchy.
Greta, as you might have guessed, is nothing like those ice-cool maidens she played with such aplomb on screen. She is earthy, voluble, passionate, witty and keenly intelligent. Theres no doubting her Latin paternal ancestry.
She also feels liberated because at long last shes getting to play a role she relishes the formidable movie legend Bette Davis in Anton Burges new play Bette and Joan, which comes to the Theatre Royal in Brighton this month after a successful run in the West End.
Bette has been an absolute inspiration because she was completely devoted as an actor, she says. If the role demanded it, shed let it all hang out and thats been a huge release for me because I can be as ugly as sin. I can stamp, slouch, droop, grimace, play evil ugly and vain ugly do all those things Ive just been dying to do.
I dont want to play sophisticated, beautiful and slim. I want to froth and fume at the mouth. All my life Ive been cast as the English rose. Well, Im no longer a rosebud; Im more like a rose whose petals are dropping off!
Greta is speaking from the home in Ashdown Forest she shares with her Italian husband Carlo and her two children. At 53, she is well preserved, but acknowledges her power over the opposite sex is waning. In a recent interview, she candidly admitted she hadnt turned a head in a decade.
Last summer, I was walking through London with my daughter when we passed a building site, she says. The looks and leers started immediately, but it was because my daughter was walking next to me. Now, most of that sycophancy and male attention has vanished just vanished and its actually a great relief.
Ageing is one of many themes explored in her latest play. Bette recognised, as I always did, that Hollywood basks in money and youth, and power wanes quickly, she says. I embarked on this project thinking Bette belonged to a different era, but I soon realised that in terms of being a woman in the Hollywood machine, things arent all that different today. The issues that surrounded her how to combine a film career with motherhood, how to avoid being pigeonholed, how to retain some sort of control are just as pertinent.
Greta plays opposite former EastEnders actress Anita Dobson, who is reprising her role as Joan Crawford. Set in adjacent dressing rooms over a single day, the play chronicles their off-screen tensions as they attempt to revive their flagging careers in the blackly comic 1962 film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Part monologue, part dialogue, the audience is privy to the women at their most intimate as they dress, apply make-up and discuss their lives, loves, losses and, of course, each other in the most venomous terms.
But despite the tensions, Greta has found much parity between the two actresses. They were signed up to the same studio, so they worked with the same actors and directors and if one rejected a script, the other picked it up. It was actually Crawford who took the idea of Baby Jane to Bette because she was a great admirer.
They came together as friends and collaborators, but Hollywood assumed there would be bitter rivalry between these two iconic women. In interviews, they spent most of their time saying: But of course we get along, and photos show them laughing and joking on set. But they were playing characters who hated each other, so there was an inevitable little spillage
Gretas passion for acting was fuelled by her English mother Pamela, who ran a dance school in Haywards Heath. Her mother had met her father, a handsome and gifted young artist, while working in Italy in the late Fifties, but when he sent the family (including Gretas two twin brothers) to live in London when Greta was four, he never joined them.
Pamela consequently upped sticks to Sussex, where Greta enjoyed an idyllic childhood. It was 10 years of playing on the Downs, flying kites, sledging, hunting for frogspawn, gathering cowslips and filling our pockets with chalk to play hopscotch all those things that make childhood rich, she says. I still think the South Downs is the most beautiful place in England. When I look at the hills, I see paintings and sculptures; I see something really epic in that landscape.
In 1977, she landed a place at the Bristol Old Vic, where her contemporaries included Miranda Richardson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Fresh out of drama school, she won the lead in the 1983 Merchant Ivory blockbuster Heat and Dust, which made her a star at just 22. Her next big hit was White Mischief in 1987, but by then she was being typecast as an actress who would strip on screen.
Those nude scenes crop up in every interview and have come to define her film career. Shes weary of the subject and begs me not to focus on it, but later brings it up herself. It all started, she says, when she stripped for the 1984 TV adaptation of John Fowles novella, The Ebony Tower, starring an aged Laurence Olivier. Scacchi romps in the raw with Larry, screamed one headline, and the die was cast.
Then followed steamier roles in White Mischief and the Hollywood blockbuster Presumed Innocent, in which she played opposite Harrison Ford. Making love to Ford might have been the stuff of female fantasies, but Greta found the filming humiliating. Some little trick happened with the camera angles and there was more nudity than I would have liked.
Her frustrations came to a head while filming Shattered. I was lying under Tom Berenger in the missionary position when I thought: This is the fourth actor Ive had on top of me in six months and its really boring.
But in fact, she turned down the Basic Instinct role that made Sharon Stone a star because she thought the lesbian scenes criminally disrespectful to homosexuals, and rejected another because of its gratuitous nudity. Then it emerged that Kathleen Turner had accepted the part, but had refused to remove her underwear.
She remembered this when working with director Robert Altman in The Player. There was a nude scene, but I told him I wouldnt remove my clothes because I was tired of playing that sort of part. He agreed, then on the last day of shooting he stormed into my dressing room and told me to get my panties off and do what I was paid to do. I refused, so he had to shoot the scene with me and Tim Robbins making love from the neck up. Later, he claimed it was all his idea.
Sadly, her home life was no less tempestuous. When her relationship with the US actor Vincent DOnofrio collapsed just six months after the birth of their daughter, she retreated to a cottage in Hurstpierpoint to lick her wounds. Sussex helped to heal her pain. Those very Sussex woods, trees and hilltops were The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh and A Midsummer Nights Dream for me.
But she continued to follow a rocky path, famously falling for her cousin Carlo, with whom she has a 14-year-old son, Matteo. Carlo was my solace and rock; the man to whom I turned when I felt desperate. People were scandalised, but its perfectly legal and we are very happy now.
Her career has enjoyed a resurgence, too, and finally the theatrical world, which never took her seriously at the peak of her film career, is embracing her. She is also relishing sparring with her co-star Anita Dobson.
Anita and I are very different women, from very different backgrounds. But I love the fact that when Im on stage with her, I really have to pedal to keep up with her incredible energy. Shes appealing to the audience and that really annoys me. But we raise the bar for each other and meet at a level.
- Bette and Joan, starring Greta Scacchi and Anita Dobson, runs at Theatre Royal, Brighton from May 28 until June 2. To book, ring 0844 871 7650 or visit www.atgtickets.com/brighton