Jacqueline Bisset on feminism, her goddaughter Angelina Jolie, and why her new film Miss You Already is so close to her heart
Jacqueline Bisset’s home in the Hollywood Hills has low ceiling beams, cosy leopard skin couches, white-washed walls and a kitchen filled with cookies, nuts and various treats. She’s the kind of woman who looks after her guests, her men – everyone. Do I want wine, water, coffee?
She does not have the airs that you might expect from a Hollywood star. She defined glamour in the 1970s opposite Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Frank Sinatra in The Detective and emerging in a wet T-shirt on promotional photographs for The Deep (the shot was taken without her knowledge or approval and she still bristles at the thought of it).
More recently, in 2014 she won a Golden Globe for Steven Poliakoff’s BBC drama Dancing On The Edge and for playing opposite Gerard Depardieu in the movie Welcome To New York. It was loosely based on the sex scandal surround the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn who was accused of attempted rape of a chambermaid in a New York hotel. She played the wife of the fictional Monsieur Devereaux. She was the only woman in the film who did not take her clothes off.
Now she stars in the searingly funny and heart-breaking movie Miss You Already. She plays Miranda, the mother of Toni Collette’s Milly who is extremely glamorous in a rock star chic way. Milly is diagnosed with breast cancer and later brain cancer. As she faces death, her best friend Jess, played by Drew Barrymore, faces IVF.
The film made me cry and laugh from the core, and Bisset’s performance steals it. She shrugs, unable to take the compliment. Bisset just turned 70 when she was filming. She was worried she would look rough. Instead, in her tight outfits and platinum blonde wig, she looks every part the alluring actress mother whose narcissism turns to despair when she realises she’s losing her daughter. Bisset’s performance is elegant and acutely observed.
She gives me wine and water as we perch on her leopard skin couches. She is wearing grey skinny jeans that emphasise her dancer’s legs. A black shirt over a white tee. Her hair is longish, wavy and brown, her cheekbones delicate and pretty, her eyes super-sparkly. Tell her she looks good and she ignores it.
“I just got back from Russia where I fell over on the first day and sprained my foot. Quite a palaver. I had to give an award but I couldn’t get my shoes on. I was supposed to look glamorous so I had a long dress and one shoe on.” Bisset is old school – the show must go on. She doesn’t complain.
She was born in Surrey and grew up in Reading and has spent her time between Los Angeles and London since her early 20s. She doesn’t have an assistant or an entourage. “I don’t want to waste a lot of time. If there is something that needs doing, I jump in.”
She chose Miss You Already after reading the script (written by the British actress and comedian Morwenna Banks). “There was another script that was offered to me and the role was much deeper and bigger. But I read them both as an audience member and thought I’d rather see this so I thought I’d rather do this. It isn’t a big part but I wanted to work with Catherine Hardwicke (award winning director of Thirteen and Twilight). I really enjoyed Toni Collette, she’s very genuine.”
There are a lot of interesting wigs in that movie. When Toni Collette’s character Milly starts to loose her hair from chemotherapy they filmed an actual buzz cut where her real long blonde hair fell to the ground. “I was in that scene when they were cutting it. She was remarkably unselfconscious. I was struck by her lack of ego. Maybe her hair grows fast, I said to myself.”
Bisset also liked working with the children in the movie. “They were little dynamos.” She herself started young but not that young. “I did ballet dancing until the age of 14. The teacher said, ‘Horse-riding or ballet, you have to decide, one of them is legs in one of them is legs out.’” It seems she want for legs out. She’s always looked glamorous in her films but never overt. Legs were never too far out.
I wonder how she related to the emotional content of Miss You Already. Has she had anyone close suffering from breast cancer? “Several of my girlfriends, none survived. One survived 18 years. She initially had a radical mastectomy. They took out all of her lymph nodes as well and she had great difficulty rebuilding that part of her body. I have a feeling that the medical business doesn’t want people to get well. All that money that goes into research and they haven’t found anything other than basically burning and poisoning. It’s horrendous.
“There is a certain way they look at you at the point they know they are going to die. It’s unforgettable. They are looking at you and they see you when you are trying to take care of them. They know it’s pointless. I’ve seen that look. It’s the look of you’re going to live and I’m going to die and you don’t see where I’m at. They know that you are very much alive and they are on the way out.”
We are both very sad now, all this talk of death. “It was actually great fun to work on Miss You Already. We laughed a lot. I’ve known Drew since she was a little girl. She was about 10 when she came up to me and said ‘I like you.’ It was at a big event.”
Bisset is also the godmother of Angelina Jolie. Does she hang out with her much? “I see her very rarely. I’m fascinated with her life as everyone else is. I’ve been thinking about her recently, all those operations she has had for her health. “
In 2013 Jolie had a double mastectomy when she was told that she had the gene that she meant she may develop breast cancer. Her mother Marcheline Bertrand died of ovarian cancer.
“It was very decisive to do that,” says Bisset. “I was very impressed. I don’t know if I would have done but given her circumstances, with six children, the biggest motivator must be that she should be there. I was very fond of her mother. She worked so hard of trying to take care of some aspects of Angelina’s life and I don’t think it was very easy. I met her when I was working with Jon Voight [Bertrand’s husband and Jolie’s father] in Switzerland on a film directed by Maximilian Schell. He was the other godparent. He passed away a few years ago.”
I bring up her Golden Globes speech, in which she told everybody to forgive because it’s the best beauty treatment. Now she says, “I don’t know about it being good for your skin but it’s good for your soul and good for the world. I try not to be so self-orientated and try and look at things from the other person’s side of the equation. Of course it’s hard to do that at the time. I’ve had people write horrible things about me. And I say I’ll never work with that person again and then I forget and find myself talking to that person. Life is short.”
Last time we met she was about to turn 70 and that was worrying her as she had lost so many friends at that age. Her father, Max died at 71 and it was worrying her. “I was shocked that I was that age. To me my father was very handsome but definitely older than me. How did I get to be that age? I’ve inherited a lot of my father’s lines but somehow on him it seemed that he was much older. Seventies are fairly young these days.”
Does she believe 70 is the new 40? “I think that’s pushing it. I think your age depends on how you look after yourself and what you think in your head, the latter being the most important. I try to think positively.
“Terence Stamp, who was a good friend of mine, said something to me when I was in a very confused state. He said ‘just do what’s in front of you.’ And that was helpful advice instead of trying to decipher thoughts from a hundred different directions. I’ve learned to apply many aspects of that to keep my brain from wandering off. Dirty blouse? Wash it. Terence is such an interesting man.”
She met him at the time she was looking after her mother, Arlette. Arlette was born in France. She escaped Nazi occupied Paris on a bicycle. She was smart, a lawyer. She developed multiple sclerosis in her late forties and early onset Alzheimer’s. Soon after she was diagnosed with MS her father, who was a GP, left her mother. Bisset was 22. “I found it hard to imagine that he could leave somebody who was so ill and basically plonk mummy into my lap.”
Bisset was torn. Her career was in Hollywood but she had to keep coming back to London to look after her mother. This also meant she couldn’t commit to a man, not fully, not when she was taking care of her mother.
“I was so muddled I didn’t know what to do. It was taking over my life. And Terence said, ‘You cannot get in the hole with people. Stay out of the hole.’ We all get caught up and through sympathy you get in there with that person and you try and fulfil their life but at the same time you can’t think straight. My favourite quote is a Churchill quote: ‘Never, never, never give up’.”
That must have been very confusing; never giving up and staying out of the hole seem like opposites. “I think Churchill and Stamp both work at different times when I am at a crossroads which I am perpetually. “Right now I am waiting for something interesting to come up, not working just floating around.”
She’s been in love many times but never married. When she first moved to Hollywood she had a long romance with actor Michael Sarrazin who she met making The Sweet Ride. He died of cancer in 2011 aged 70. She also had a long relationship with Russian dancer Alexander Godunov.
Then she was with actor Vincent Perez and martial arts expert Emin Boztepe. They were passionate affairs yet she remained single with no children. “It was a variety of things. My first relationship had two children and he hadn’t married their mother so I thought he’s not going to marry me.” She was linked to Sinatra when they made The Detective in 1968. “He asked me to dinner but I said no.” And her on-screen boyfriend Steve McQueen? “He was attractive but a little scary. The way he talked would have driven me mad. I didn’t know what a dude or a soul chick was.”
Is there love in her life now? “I am happy, yes. But I don’t want to talk about it.” I am glad that she’s happy. She exudes strength and vulnerability in equal measure. She likes to look after people. It would be good to imagine someone looked after her.
Recently she said that she never fully embraced feminism. “I don’t have a problem or feel hard done by if I am helping or serving someone. Serving the world is what we are here to do. And I am quite willing to put in a lot of work for a man and I don’t feel funny when I cook or look after them, it’s instinctive. When I was a child there was a Russian lady who was my idol, she just made everyone happy. I met her son when I was six, my first boyfriend. His mother was generous, graceful and extraordinary.
“There is a lot of anger in women and a lot of reactive behaviour in men and I don’t enjoy that journey. Of course unequal pay is completely unfair. As a women my spirit tends to wrap around people. I don’t want to squash them. I want them to be themselves. I think most women look for a man who has qualities of sensitivity but also we like the alpha male. That’s what we are naturally drawn to. That’s why women like bad boys, they are natural boys. Men can make our hearts open like flowers and they can chop us off and chop us down. There’s no way round it.” She smiles wistfully.
She has just come back from filming Peter and John, based on the 1887 Guy de Maupassant novel Pierre et Jean. “It’s meant to take place in a French Village but it got transplanted to Nantucket. It’s about a family, mother and father with two sons who are very different. They live a life on quite a low income and then one of the sons inherits a large sum of money and it completely unbalances the family. And it turns out that my character is not a good girl.”
She smiles. “It’s a period drama and that they don’t let you wear make-up. She wasn’t meant to be glamorous so it’s quite a shock seeing myself, especially in cold weather. It was pretty awful at times but I said ‘I have to get used to this, it’s not going to be improved’.”
I examine her. She is not wearing much make-up today. Is she doing the no make-up look? “It doesn’t suit me, the no make-up look. I either wear makeup or I don’t.” She doesn’t like it that I am scouring her face for make-up, lines or surgery. She has never had any work done or even Botox. Her face looks pretty impressive to me. “Let’s change the subject,” she says.
But Bisset’s kindness, her wanting to look after people, shines through her face. Her policy of not thinking badly about anyone being the best beauty treatment appears to work.
Miss You Already is released on September 25