Theresa Russell: Fiercely Independent
June 20, 2012 , 12:36 am | By Bryan Reesman
Actress Theresa Russell has had an impressively eclectic career that has spanned big Hollywood movies (Black Widow, Spider-Man 3), intriguing indies (Aria, Insignificance) and TV mini-series (Empire Falls). She recently chatted with the press for the DVD reissue of Track 29, a surreal movie from the late ’80s directed by her former husband Nicolas Roeg and co-starring a young Gary Oldman. It’s a bizarre yarn about a loveless marriage between a controlling, obsessed model train collector (Christopher Lloyd) and his emotionally disturbed wife (Russell), who is haunted by the adult specter of the son (Oldman) she wanted to have. But their relationship gets, umm, a little too cozy.
Russell spoke to A.D.D. about how indie filmmaking has changed since that time, leading roles for older leading ladies, underrated personal roles and Broadway aspirations.
Do you remember how you got into the character of Linda Henry in Track 29?
I actually did research into people who had apparitions. I read up on that and how that occurs. I thought about her screwed up relationship with her mother and how traumatizing that was for her. It wasn’t just about the abortion that she didn’t want, it represented everything that had traumatized her basically. She got into a loveless marriage to appease her [mother], I suppose, then just trying to keep this weird secret that she had, that the baby wasn’t dead and was actually there.
I look at a film like Track 29, and I think about the way that independent films have evolved, or perhaps devolved, in the subsequent 24 years. All the studios now have their art-house divisions, so I think making a film like this would actually be harder today.
I think you’re right actually. I think we’re in a really weird transitional state in terms of the business right now, but after we get through this shitty period I would think that the young filmmakers are really going to have a chance to do unbelievably creative things. You don’t need a huge crew and tons of money, and you can just get together and actually do films that are off in different territory. Then you can it promote yourself online. There are going to be some really interesting things happening after we get over whatever we’re doing right now. I don’t know when that will occur.
A few years ago, Spike Lee told me that many of his students at NYU had never cut on film. Editing that way actually makes you think a bit more about the choices that you make because it requires more attention. I imagine it is the same thing for you as an actor shooting films in a certain way?
Yes, that’s true, because he [Nic Roeg] would say, “Print two and six.” I would go back and say, “Two and six, what about three? Would you print three because I felt better about three. Do it for me, please, thank you.” You really did have to pay more attention, whereas with video they have the whole lot to look at. They put a little star by their preferred one, but they can still see every shot that you want. Those were different days. My first film was with Elia Kazan, and they were right there next to the camera — the DP, the focus puller, the script girl and the director, they were all part of your fourth wall. I actually remember — and this was on a Nic film, but I don’t remember which one — he would be in the other room watching it there. I actually didn’t like that. “Wait a second. Get our ass back in here. Don’t be shouting at me through the damn door!”
“Actresses still age in dog years. That still is very prevalent. The really meaty, juicy roles for women of my age…don’t come along very often.”
You have been doing films for nearly 30 years. It seems that Hollywood is finally figuring out that not only are older women attractive but you can give them more substantial roles, and people actually go to see those movies.
Well, your mouth to God’s ear. That hasn’t really trickled down so far.
How much has the business changed over the past three decades?
It’s still the same. Actresses still age in dog years. That still is very prevalent. Having these mothers of teenagers at 35, I don’t know how they manage it. Or else a 50+ leading man has a 20-year-old girlfriend as the leading lady. That’s not as prevalent, but still the really meaty, juicy roles for women of my age — and I’m 54 — don’t come along very often. They really don’t. Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and a couple of others get first dibs on all those juicy roles.
What do you think is your most underrated role and why?
It’s kind of weird watching [me as] Marilyn [Monroe] when I did Insignificance. That was really challenging because at first I did not want to do it. That was a pile of horseshit I didn’t want to step in. Everybody had these preconceived ideas, and I didn’t want [to do] a caricature. That was kind of tricky to get my head around. Another one I’m proud of is Whore. That was another one where people didn’t quite know what to make of her and the film. Ken Russell was kind of crazy too. Frankly, that one’s still really hard for me to look at, but I’m proud of it obviously. I wish people would see these films, I really do.
“I would love to do Broadway.”
How crazy was Ken Russell?
Pretty crazy. Crazy enough that if he wasn’t an artist he would probably be locked up. There’s a few of those around, especially in those days. Nic could’ve almost been one like that, I swear to God. Those enfants terribles of the 70s. That was a great time for directors.
The ’70s had films like Pretty Baby and The Exorcist that you couldn’t get away with today. The stuff that Linda Blair dealt with on set was during a more innocent time. I don’t think you could get away with those things today.
I don’t think so either. After Bad Timing came out, people didn’t understand that grammar of cutting. They wanted a linear story. People don’t think linearly, so why does it have to be cut that way? Nic said that after MTV came out that that kind of cutting became very prevalent [in music videos] and people got used to understanding that way of filmmaking. He was ahead of his time as usual.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
Not at the moment. There hasn’t been much coming down the pipeline that’s been that interesting. I used to do a lot more independent films, but that’s dried up with the recession. Something will come along when I’m ready for it.
Have you ever thought about doing Broadway?
I would love to do Broadway. I started singing [recently], and even prior to that I thought it would be so fun to do a Broadway show, just dance and sing.
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