Mia - still the will of the wisp

Locarno pays tribute to a child of the Sixties.

by Richard Mowe

Mia Farrow - "May be I do want to act again. My being distracted from acting with other thing led me to conclude that I did not belong there any more."
Mia Farrow - "May be I do want to act again. My being distracted from acting with other thing led me to conclude that I did not belong there any more." Photo: Richard Mowe

With her wispy, curly hair and laid back attitude, Mia Farrow still looks like a child of the Sixties. Now grounded by her humanitarian works as a Unicef ambassador, she travels to Darfur, Chad and other parts of Africa to draw attention to the desperate plight of people unable to help themselves. She has spent her life in the spotlight, the issue of Hollywood royalty (the writer-director John Farrow and the actress Maureen O’Sullivan) with famous men in her orbit: Frank Sinatra, whom she married at 21 when he was 50, conductor André Previn and Woody Allen. She created a home for her 14 adopted and biological children but managed to combine family with a career that started in her teenage years with the soap Peyton Place and went on to include such seminal works as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Great Gatsby, John And Mary, and 12 of Woody Allen’s films, among them Hannah And Her Sisters and Broadway Danny Rose. After a period of reflection she is about appear in a Broadway revival of A R Gurney’s play Love Letters with Brian Dennehy and Carol Burnett. She reflects on her life, times, relationships and career at the Locarno Film Festival where she is being given a tribute and the Leopard Club Award (*).

Q:How do you keep all the balls up in the air at once? Because your life seems incredibly full and complicated.

MF: I think it is probably better not to think about them as balls in the air because if I did I would likely drop everything. I think the way I would view it is that I have multiple interests and I have always been like that and I cannot help it. I am not terribly organised and if anyone follows me on Twitter you would find out how eclectic my interests and fascinations are. I might get obsessed with one thing and Tweet about it for days. Whatever my interests are I cannot help it. I am engaged in a lot of things … if I am focused on one thing I do not worry about keeping the other things in the air. Maybe disorganisation is part of the disorganised fashion of my life. It is on purpose and unavoidable. I was not disorganised, however, as a mother. My household was not disorganised although you might look at it and think it is. The children went to college and are good people and that part I kept very nailed down. For my own interests I am free to pursue them. When I do the play on Broadway [Love Letters by A J Gurney] I will know my lines and be on time. As for the opportunities that come along I will invest in them and I think that is OK.

Q:When you were starting off was it a given that you would have an acting career?

MF: In high school I discovered it was one of the things I could do. I got all the best parts in the plays. I grew up in Beverley Hills where nobody had a grandmother, a cousin, or an an aunt. The generation my mother had come from came across America and Europe too. This was the town of making films rather than a town where generations of people had been living for a long time. All the children I grew up with were the kids of people in films. Going in to films crossed all our minds. It really was a one-show town. Then there were the people who were perceived as satellites to the movie stars – people such as lawyers, agents, and publicists.

Q:Did you feel that this was something that you could do?

MF: My first job was in The Importance Of Being Earnest off Broadway. I was 17 and my father had just died. I was second to the eldest who was my brother and he was killed in airplane crash. I began auditioning for plays and got this one. I discovered that this was a job I could do without much education although I sat in on classes. And I tried summer stock and began to learn on my feet.

Q:In Rosemary’s Baby you and John Cassavetes play a young couple who move into an apartment. Was there a clash between Cassavetes, who likes naturalism and spontaneity, and Polanski, who prefers precison?

Mia Farrow accepts her Leopard Club Award at the Piazza Grande in Locarno last night (8 August)
Mia Farrow accepts her Leopard Club Award at the Piazza Grande in Locarno last night (8 August)

MF: The two styles could not have been more different. With Roman the exactness and the precision of mapping out his shots was incredible. If a glass on a table was too far to the right you had ruined that shot. Cassavetes was more into hand held stuff and he liked to be free to say what he wanted and to do a lot of ad libbing. With Polanksi there was to be no improvising which meant Cassavetes found he was not comfortable with the confines of these extraordinary shots that Polanski mapped out. John did not like acting in this very particular and precise way. He wanted to move and say things that were not scripted. Over the months there came to be a silence between them and then there was something else going on. The actress Ruth Gordon who also was in the film said let’s get back to work and she ensured that everyone was working again and John complied. I had such respect for both of them. Roman [due to appear for the closing of the Festival next weekend] is also a great actor. If he does not want to talk about the scene he will act it the way he wants it to be done. He conveyed to me what he wanted out of a particular scene in this adorable accent and it was clear to me what he wanted.

Q:Do you enjoy going back and forth between styles of working?

MF: There is as many styles of directing as there are human beings and every director has his or her way of doing it. Some say nothing except if it is wrong. Roman gave no latitude and it was clear what he wanted. And it was like: Bingo I get that and I can do that. He was the most helpful of all the directors of I have worked with.

Q:In your first film, Guns Of Batasi, you were working with such fabled actors as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, Richard Attenborough and Jack Hawkins. Was that intimidating?

MF: They all came in and knew their lines and everything was so professional and awesome. And on another film I did around the same time [Secret Ceremony by Joseph Losey] Elizabeth Taylor was so kind and she scooped me up like a real mother because I was having problems in my own life. She was always late and there was no point in even asking her to be there before 11am. She had this huge entourage who were really nice and they would give me a glass of something with salt on the rim [a Margarita] which I could not possibly drink, and poured away in to a plant pot when no one was looking. Richard Burton was in the next studio shooting Where Eagles Dare, and during the lunch break they would take as long as they wanted. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Taylor and Burton had the entire floor of the Dorchester in London.

Q:You have this ability to surprise us and always do something completely unexpected. Is that part of your motivation?

MF: I think it is just part of the job. That said, there are certain actors I admire who did not change character like Spencer Tracy. Yul Brynner told me he had a different walk for every film, but he was always simply so Yul Brynner. I see the job as to successfully convey the part you have been asked to play. Your task is to make that person real. I am used to doing different roles. I was at Royal Shakespeare Company and did several plays in repertory so it was part of my training. People are multi-faceted and we all have that capacity to pretend – just ask any seven-year-old.

Q:What prompted you to return to the stage?

MF: I had been saying to myself that I did not want to act any more. So I thought I would do this run on Broadway next month. And I will see how it goes before I make definitive statements about anything. May be I do want to act again. My being distracted from acting with other thing led me to conclude that I did not belong there any more. One of my sons kept telling me not to make these statements. He said that acting was something I could do that is meaningful to audiences. He suggested that I should not be so cavalier about this gift I had been given. All of a sudden I was sad the I had been so disrespectful to that talent.

Q:Did you mother [Maureen O’Sullivan] give you any useful tips about acting?

MF: She said I should always choose simple clothes and simple hair so that people could not define the time unless that was the object. In Rosemary’s Baby I tried to make her look not too Sixties.

Q:You have worked with a range of directors across the generations. Who made a big impression?

MF:Carol Reed was a bit frail at the time of working him in 1972 on Follow Me! He was older than my parents. He was such a gentleman. He would wear a certain attire to work and he had certain way of conveying information. He was steeped in culture and it was an honour to be in his company. Roman [Polanski) was closer to my age and communicated in the way younger people communicate. It is easier for me if there is less formality. Michel Gondry, on the other hand, is like Robert Altman – who was like come in to my sandbox and play and we will all play. With Altman (A Wedding, 1978) you would get a page the night before but you did not have to say any of that and my character in the end did not say anything at all. We had a complete free for all. Altman was a master and Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, 2008) is so sweet and imaginative and on your side. You could do anything and he would be encouraging. Todd Solondz (Dark Horse, 2011) is the same.

Q:You haven’t worked with any women film-makers. Would you like to?

MF: If I find time to do another film I would love to work with a female director because I think women are better communicators.

(*) The Leopard Club Award is named after the supporting Association of the Festival. It pays tribute to someone in film whose work has left a mark on the collective imagination. This year the award is attributed to the American actress Mia Farrow. The award presentation took place yesterday (8 August) on the Piazza Grande.

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