Enigmatic model-turned-actress Marisa Berenson is one of the most gorgeous women to grace the silver screen, first making a name for herself in Death In Venice and Bob Fosse’s cinematic adaptation of the Hal Prince musical Cabaret, then landing a coveted co-starring role in the Stanley Kubrick period epic Barry Lyndon. Since then she has appeared in a steady stream of movies (such as S.O.B., White Hunter Black Heart and Color Me Kubrick) and television shows and mini-series (Hemingway, Murder, She Wrote and Mafiosa, among many others). She also has a supporting role in the forthcoming Emma Thompson/Pierce Brosnan comedy Love Punch that showcases her funny side.
I recently spoke to Ms. Berenson for MSN Movies about the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of Cabaret — the famous tale of romantic entanglements in Berlin circa 1931, just prior to the Nazi takeover — and during our half-hour chat, she talked about working with directors Bob Fosse and Stanley Kubrick, actor Edward Woodward and others, her most underrated roles and what’s coming up next.
I feel that Cabaret is still relevant in many ways today.
Yes, it certainly inspired a lot of film and theater over the years. It’s still ongoing, and life is a permanent cabaret as they say.
Do you remember what the atmosphere was like in Berlin and Germany at the time that you were shooting the film?
The Wall was still up, and the atmosphere was still pretty heavy in Berlin. It’s not at all what it is today. It’s become a very cultural center again and has opened up a lot since then, but when we were there — which was the perfect ambience for the film because it still had that sense of what was behind The Wall — the energy was realistically in the streets of Berlin.
I heard that some of the extras did not know what the movie was about when they were first cast.
Right, because I think it would’ve created a problem as it does sometimes when the subjects are politically sensitive. It was a strong film with very important subject matter. But it’s delicate, especially when you’re filming in a country that still has a wall up.
Have you been to Germany since you made Cabaret?
I’ve been to Germany since, and it has totally changed. It’s one of the leading European countries now economically and culturally too. Germany has always been a very creative cultural country — in literature, in films, in art, in a lot of things — and I think it never stopped, but it was more underground then. Now it’s come full circle, and Berlin is definitely one of the most interesting cultural and intellectual towns. Munich is always fun and was then too. It was the city that had the most life to it when we were there.
“I think people confuse dialogue with acting, and I find that the most interesting performances are when you look into people’s souls.”
There is a lot of subtlety to the storytelling in Cabaret. There are violent moments with the Nazis, but the story doesn’t attempt to wrap everything up. While your character Natalia gets married, we’re left to wonder what happens to her and her husband.
You do sort of wonder what happens to her because it was just the beginning of the war, it was just the rise of all of that, and there were years of wars behind that. Who knows what happened to their lives? Maybe they survived, maybe they didn’t.
I learned a huge amount because that was a great part for me. I was new and young and got nominated for a Golden Globe. That was really nice, and out of that came Barry Lyndon because Stanley Kubrick saw me in that and wanted me but thought I was German. This is a funny story because Stanley Donen — who I knew when I was a very little girl because he used to come to my parents’ house in Switzerland, so I grew up knowing him — he and Kubrick were friends and talked on the phone one day. I was in Paris living at my grandmother’s at the time, and he called me and said that Kubrick was going to call me because he wanted me for his next movie. “He thought you were German. He saw you in Cabaret and really liked your performance, but unfortunately you have this strong German accent. I said to him, ‘I’ve known her since I was a kid. She’s not German at all and speaks perfect English.'”
So Stanley called me at my house one day, and I was in bed with pneumonia. I had a very high fever, and I couldn’t get a word out at all, but he talked for about half an hour about my performance in Cabaret and what he liked and really dissected it. Then he said to me, “I’m going to send you a book. I want you to play in English countess with Ryan O’Neal in the 18th century. That said, I can’t tell you anymore. Tell me what you think about the book.” That’s how it happened. I met him six months later to do fittings and costumes and stuff.
Was he as demanding and as perfectionist as people say?
Yes. He was, but I understand that. If you want to do great work in life, and I think that’s true for any artist, you can’t do mediocre work. You have to be extraordinary, and to be extraordinary and be demanding on yourself and others, otherwise you’re just in the middle. All of these exceptional people I’ve worked with are all perfectionists, they’re all meticulous. Stanley was very meticulous, but he was a very nice man. He was not this ogre that everybody thought he was, he was just very passionate about what he did, and every single detail interested him. He was truly a wonderful man and very funny. He was always highly respectful to me and very kind. I never suffered with Stanley. On the contrary. You learn so much about everything when you work with people like that who are so perfectionist. The work was so incredible and lasted so long. It truly was an experience that I will never forget and brought me so much in my life. There is not one day in my life that doesn’t go by without somebody talking to me about Barry Lyndon.
In the case of Barry Lyndon, a lot of those shots are almost like moving paintings. I imagine modeling must’ve been a good experience prior to this because you had to be very still in many of the scenes, especially when your character went into a state of mourning for her son.
I must say that I enjoy acting with that stillness because the camera picks up everything, and what it does pick up is inner emotions more than anything, so you don’t have to be agitated. I think people confuse dialogue with acting, and I find that the most interesting performances are when you look into people’s souls. They don’t have to say anything, but you read everything in their eyes and the way they’re playing, so it’s more expressive sometimes than a lot of dialogue. It’s true that I wasn’t afraid of the camera at all. In fact, [Luchino] Visconti said that to me on the first day of shooting on Death In Venice. He came into my room and said, “Congratulations because you’re not afraid of the camera. You have my blessings.” So I guess my modeling life did help me a lot because for me it was play acting too.
Cabaret is more subdued than some of the films today.
Yes, I think that nowadays unfortunately… I think a lot of the popular films have an intellectual side and a depth of them and are not necessarily action action action and total superficiality, even though a lot of people love that. Barry Lyndon at the time was very slow moving, and a lot of people in America had trouble sitting through the slowness of it apparently because they were used to fast-moving films. They didn’t have the patience to sit through and really enjoy the qualities and the tempo, and now retrospectively it’s become a sort of cult film that everybody loves. Even the younger generation look at it in awe. First of all, it reflected so much the tempo of the time. In the 18th century people didn’t run everywhere, and the tempo of the way they walked, the way they talked and the way they moved — there was no Internet and cell phones and all of that — life was totally different and had a much slower rhythm. High class, aristocratic people were very repressed and didn’t show a lot of emotions. Everything had to be very dignified on the surface, and all of that is reflected in that [film]. He got that period so right — the tempo of the period and the whole mood of it was so extraordinarily well-portrayed.
I love Michael. We’ve stayed very good friends over the years, and his wife Pat and Liza. She’s one of my closest friends in the world. We’ve stayed friends since then and stayed together and have seen each other over the years. It’s wonderful when you do have that friendship that is long-lasting. The same with Joel [Grey] actually. In this business, sometimes you love all the people you work with — you promise to stay in touch, then life takes you in many directions and you don’t always see the people you’ve been a family with for months on end. But with Cabaret, I must say we did stay in touch, and I’ve been friends with them for years. It’s nice to have an old friend reunion.
Do have fond recollections of working with them on the set of the movie?
They’re all fun recollections. We laughed so much. Liza is one of the funniest people I know. I was this young, inexperienced actress, and they were so generous. Liza is such a generous person, and they always made me feel comfortable, which is important because not everybody is like that. Liza is certainly one of the most generous people I know, and so are Joel and Michael. They’re all really kind, warm people, and that’s really important when you’re starting out in life and are insecure and shy. When you have a big break, to have people around you who are supportive and kind, you don’t forget that.
“Stanley [Kubrick] was very meticulous, but he was a very nice man. He was not this ogre that everybody thought he was, he was just very passionate about what he did, and every single detail interested him.”
You appeared with one of my favorite actors, Edward Woodward, when you did an episode of The Equalizer in 1985.
What was it like working with him?
Again, he was very simpatico. I have fond memories of that. He was a gentleman, like these wonderful, old-style actors, truly very kind and a very nice man. English actors are amazing because they have this incredible class and stillness about them. I find that English actors stand out in an amazing way — the way they act, the way they are, just the class and the quality they have. He was like that, an old-school, wonderful English gentleman.
Is there any one role in your life that you think is underrated and that more people should be aware of?
There are some roles that I’ve done that I’m really proud of but have never been seen in America because they were big mini-series in Europe or things like that. One in particular that I really was proud of was taken from a Pratolini book. [Vasco] Pratolini was a great Italian writer. It was called Lo Scialo, which means The Waste. It was all about the rising of fascism in Italy, and that was probably one of the richest characters I’ve played in a film. This tells the story of her life — she is a fascist, and then she goes crazy. It’s a fabulous part in a fabulous film. Sometimes you regret that things like that don’t get seen. There are a few parts like that which I’ve done in Europe that I really like but don’t come across because they’re not in English or because they’re just not distributed in America. Another one I did was a Chekhov film called The Cherry Orchard that I’m proud of. It’s an Italian film. It was written by Antonello Aglioti.
You’re in a movie called Love Punch that’s coming out this year, correct?
Yes, I’ve a little part in that I loved doing because it’s a romantic comedy with Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan, who are just such great people. We had so much fun. It was filmed in Paris and was such fun. It’s going to be one of those wonderful, romantic funny movies. They’re so delightful — I knew them both before, but to actually work with them was a real treat. I like to do comedy and would like to do more. In fact, Emma said that to me. “Very few people know this side of you, Marisa! We’ve got to do something about that.” People see me more as a tragedienne, you know? I always play these upper-class, tragic women, but it’s nice when people see something else. We are usually multifaceted as actors — certainly I feel I am — and it is frustrating sometimes when the potential is not used enough. They kind of typecast one in certain things, so then when somebody comes along and gives you the chance to play something different, that’s what one loves, to be able to do all kinds of different things. I would love to do more comedy and more of certain things that I guess not everybody knows I can do.