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The Conversation: We chat with actress Greta Scacchi

By Roger Crow

The Italian-Australian actress (54), best known for roles in films such as White Mischief and Presumed Innocent, will be starring in a new documentary The Last Impresario about theatre and film genius Michael White.

Q: Michael White was essential to so many productions, including the Monty Python movies. Would your 1987 film white mischief have been made without him?

A: It would not have come about without his belief in it, and I feel very grateful for how he really engineered some of the first breaks in my career. He was very enthusiastic about it. He had conviction and handed the book to me about three years before it was actually made, so he did go hustling around, putting up his own creative views on it. He was largely responsible for sniffing out the director and putting various people together.

Q: Did White Mischief open a lot of doors for you in the States?

A: Yes, it really did. I mean, I could have gone to America before, but I was very resistant to it; I wasn't somebody that was going to go rushing to Hollywood for the sake of it. On principle, I was rather allergic to it.

Q: Director Gracie Otto did a good job on this new documentary about him, The Last Impressario

A: I found it quite impressive that a girl of my daughter's generation – in fact, they're best friends, my daughter Leila (who's 22) and Gracie – should recognise the quality in a much older man like that and be interested.

I have been with her right from the beginning, when I was first encouraging her to go ahead and do something, after meeting and falling for Michael White.

Q: Back to your career, was it a culture shock going from a low-budget movie like Defence of the Realm, to a multi-million dollar thriller like 1990's Presumed Innocent?

A: It was an exciting experience because it meant going to work in America for the first time. It was a high-budget film, so it was a huge leap from anything I'd been used to in England, Australia and Italy, where things are relatively low-budget, people work very hard and film crews are very good, but they're under time pressure and don't have so many resources. This was a luxury of resources, accommodation and everything, and we were given access to lawyers. There was a group of lawyers who were employed full-time just to advise the actors. I've never since worked on something where the actor is given free reign to do authentic research with any amount of budget and support from whoever in high places.

Q: How was it working with Harrison Ford?

A: It was thrilling. Both Bonnie Bedelia and I both had a crush on him, vying for his attentions, and he made no sign of a response to either of us. He was happily married at the time, and very shy, very sensitive and nice to work with.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming movie, The Falling

A: It's quite ambitious, because it's a tricky subject. It's based on the true stories of teenage girls; pubescent girls who have mass hysteria, desire to commit suicide or sexual fantasies and fainting epidemics in a school in the 1960s, so it was marvellous to work with these very talented teenagers. They were the leads, and then there were a few of us older actors playing the hideous staff members in this girls' school – I was the most hideous of all. I played the dreaded history teacher; a monster. And I liked playing that. I like having gotten to an age where I can let it all hang out and play character roles.

Q: We don't see enough of you in English language movies these days. Is that because you prefer theatre?

A: Well, I spent the first 15 years of my career hankering to get opportunities in theatre, and I was being bombarded with film offers and no theatre offers. Then I spent the next 15 years having success, finally breaking into theatre, and the film roles relatively dried up, particularly in the last 10 years, because they just don't know what to do with actresses of my age.

Q: What have been your favourite stage roles?

A: I've had lots of meaty roles here and in Australia, Italy and France. I've played some of the roles I really dreamed of playing, like Hester in Deep Blue Sea, and Kate in (Harold) Pinter's Old Times. I played Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart in Sydney, and my last role in England, which was very successful, was a tour (of Bette And Joan) with Anita Dobson, playing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, so that was thrilling.

The plug

Born in 1960 to an Italian father and English mother, Greta Scacchi lived in Perth, Australia, before returning to the UK in 1977 to begin her acting career in films such as Heat and Dust and White Mischief. She was married to American actor Vincent D'Onofrio, with whom she has a daughter, Leila (22), and she has a son, Matteo (16) by her cousin Carlo Mantegazza. New documentary The Last Impresario is released in cinemas this weekend

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