The international film star talks about her latest projects, including the jazz drama miniseries, Dancing on the Edge.
Actress Jacqueline Bisset
Tavis: Jacqueline Bisset has starred in Hollywood Blockbusters like “The Deep” and “Bullet.” She’s now starring in a new limited series called “Dancing on the Edge.” It begins this week on stars. The drama is based loosely on the real life experiences of Duke Ellington when his jazz band became the toast of London back in the 1930s. Miss Bisset plays the fictional band’s wealthy patron lady Lavinia Cremone.
Let’s take a look at “Dancing on the Edge,” which also stars one Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Tavis: I’m going to jump right to this film here in just a second, but I want to reprise the conversation we were having before we came on the air about the various mispronunciations of your name over the years.
Tavis: And I was told when this conversation was scheduled – this is my first time meeting you, I’m honored to have you on this program.
Bisset: Thank you.
Tavis: After all these years I was told, “You must say her name correctly.”
Bisset: I really don’t mind at all.
Tavis: Yes, you do.
Bisset: No, I don’t.
Tavis: When your name has been hacked up that many times…
Bisset: It has been and I…
Tavis: So give me some examples of what you’ve been called over the years.
Bisset: Well, I get called Jacqueline Bissette in America. In France I get called Jackie Bisset. And actually it is Jacqueline Bisset, which is not that easy to say.
But I’ve lost track of it all now. I just say…
Tavis: But is Bisset not Bissette?
Bisset: It’s Bisset.
Tavis: Okay. I got that right, though?
Tavis: Good. Okay. Phew, all right. I’m honored to have you here.
Bisset: Thank you.
Tavis: Now, tell me about “Dancing on the Edge.”
Bisset: Well, where do I start? This is a very well written and good drama, first of all. Directed by an authentic author-director-artist called Stephen Poliakoff.
Very reputed, well reputed man, and one of considerable intelligence, and disciplined. So we all embarked on this with enthusiasm, but we were all I think a little bit under the – just that touch of little fear that we wouldn’t please Stephen. So we all had very interesting roles. I’m joined in this project by many good actors. John Goodman plays the most extraordinary odd man, very wealthy.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the musician band leader of this jazz band who – an English jazz band who are trying to find their way. Matthew Good plays the young journalist who sort of pulls me from my reclusive life. I have – this takes place in the early 30s, and the First World War has lost me my three sons. And I have been for about 15 years I’ve been a recluse, and obviously not in a very good place, not wanting to communicate. And I meet this jaunty journalist, and who happens to mention that he has a magazine about music. And we meet at a funeral, and he wants to meet me and get to know me because he’s trying to promote his singers and his band. And I very reluctantly talk to him and I – he mentions the music, I invite him for tea. And I live in a grandiose house in the country alone. And he just moves in on me. He’s a pushy guy. Matthew’s wonderful in this. He’s a very jaunty naughty sexy kind of a young man, and we become really good pals. But gradually he brings me back to life via all of his escapades. And I know a lot of people socially. I’ve known them for years. I’ve mixed with – I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve met the royals, I’ve met many, many social people, and I am encouraged by this group to get them off the ground a bit. And I introduce them to people who can help them.
Bisset: Get them recorded, and so but beyond all this – I mean, there’s lots of different stories within this piece, but basically it’s about the way racism was very prevalent in England in the upper classes, considerably in the upper classes. And in the background, mid-30s, you know, the whole rise of Hitler was rising, though it’s not featured as a thing. But it’s sort of something that was creeping up into Germany, and the contacts with the English royalty sort of suggested and all this horrible behavior that this band went through. Now, they stayed in a very grand hotel, but they were in the basement. These young inspiring singers, they – Chiwetel plays a man of great distinction, very well educated.
Tavis: I should mention, Chiwetel – there’s a picture of him on the screen now. I think his name is becoming more and more well known to fans of Hollywood for a lot of wonderful projects he’s been in. But, as you know, at the moment…
Tavis: He’s getting a lot of – lot of love for his lead role in “12 Years of Slave.”
Bisset: “12 Years of Slave,” I’m going to see that tonight.
Tavis: It’s quite a project, and he’s getting a lot of love for that. So he’s in this project with you.
Bisset: He’s the lead.
Tavis: Again, this is…
Bisset: – lead, he’s the band leader. And so what happens really is that the band gets off to a good start, but they’re constantly being – they’re always being tested. They’re always being tested and humiliated. And put through people being just dreadful with them.
He holds his head high. But there’s also a murder. And I don’t want – it’s hard not to tell the story, I don’t want to tell the story. But Chiwetel’s character, things start to tip against him.
Tavis: I’m going to stop you here ‘cause I don’t want you to tell the whole story.
Tavis: You’ve given us a good setup for what it is. I want to go back to keep us out from – keep us away from giving the storyline away. I want to go back to a comment you raised earlier, which kind of struck me. And that is this notion that there was a bit of fear and trepidation that you had about not wanting to let the director down.
Tavis: I’m struck by that because after all of these years, all of your successes, the honors, the award, the accolades, you are still…
Bisset: Don’t push it; I haven’t had that many accolades…
Bisset: I’ve had a good career, but…
Tavis: You’ve done quite well by yourself. But I’m just struck – I’m trying to juxtapose that success with this feeling still…
Bisset: Oh God.
Tavis: – of fear of letting the director down.
Bisset: Well, you know, there’s directors you work for and they do a sort of workman like job, but when there’s an auteur who’s written it, and he’s going to direct it all, and he’s cast everybody carefully, and tested us all, and looked at us, it’s a very personal thing. And you’re working, you can’t be wasting time. The BBC do wonderful projects.
But the money’s tight, and the days are close. You know, it’s tight, all – all filming is tight, television, all film. But, when you know you’ve got a man of the – of the lead, you just don’t want to waste anything. So you don’t want to be less than great – than good, and it creates a kind of tension
I started off project so nervous that I’ve never – I haven’t had nerves like this since I don’t know which project. And, I mean, I just – I was terrified – I was terrified. But I could thank God I came back together. But the – what happened when I get terrified is I completely forget everything.
Bisset: So I have, you know, the actors nightmare, completely forgot my words.
Tavis: And what happens on set when you…
Bisset: He said – he said, “Jacqueline, what’s going on?” I said, “I’m having total stage fright, just complete stage fright.” And I – and so are the shots, you know the monster shots where the camera’s moving and the camera – for example, maybe 15 people in the room, and the camera starts moving on a couple, and moves to a group of three. Then moves to a one, or a two, or a fireplace, or whatever it be. And the cues have to be picked up absolutely. Otherwise, you can’t – you can’t cut these scenes, they’re short. You know, as long as they add up to quite a few minutes. So if you miss your cue, and the – I just thought, if this goes on I shall have to retire because – and then, for God sake, you know, pull it together – pull it together, what’s the matter with you. And I knew I knew the lines, you know.
Bisset: I knew I knew them, but it just – it’s happened to me – happened to me on one other show. It happened to me – I was working on Ally McBeal. I was doing a couple of episodes, and I’ve done bit of, I’ve done my bit of filming, and it was Calista’s turn on camera, and I was off camera. But I couldn’t remember my lines, and I couldn’t put my glasses on because the camera could see my side of my face. So I couldn’t read it, and it was something beyond terror. You know, I can’t remember how we got through it. She was so nice about it.
Tavis: Yeah. How do you get through that? How does that – how do you get through it, number one? And how does it not shake your confidence when you can’t recall your…?
Bisset: Well, it does. It does shake your confidence, but it’s a thing that can happen, it’s sort of the actor’s nightmare. You dream about it and you wake up, you know, it’s the big terror. And then it passed because I – ‘cause we had – he said to me, “What is going on?” And I said that, and having admitted to it I hope it never happens to me again, it’s just awful.
Tavis: So – so conversely when – when – when you know that you’re in your groove and that you’re doing your best work, you feel that as well?
Bisset: Oh yes.
Oh, there’s a state, you know, there’s a state where you can say, God, I’m just eating the best cake and it’s just chewing up just beautifully, you know. And you feel this sense of your body’s alert and everything. You know, you always need energy when you’re acting whether you’re playing someone’s who playing tired, you’ve still got to have that reserve. You know, you need that. I always say about Cloris Leachman, who’s an actress whose energy is phenomenal; I always say she has an extra gear.
Tavis: Yeah, she does.
Bisset: She does, doesn’t she?
Tavis: I’ve met her a few times. Yeah, she does, yeah.
Bisset: So you kind of need to have that, just a touch of that extra gear when you’re working. And that’s a matter of conserving energy sometimes, and – and not wearing yourself down by wasting time sometimes doing things that take you away from the work. Everybody was very concentrated. I was impressed with John Goodman. I’d never met John Goodman. And his character’s odd, and all kinds of…
Tavis: He plays odd characters pretty well though.
Bisset: Yes. But this is more mysterious than others.
You know, I think. And he’s excellent at it, he’s excellent. And he pulls us all into the story; he pulls us into his web. But I wanted to talk to him, you know, and he was – so I found something to say to him. And he responded, he was sweet, he was polite, but he went right back to where he was in character. And I think everybody sort of did. It was unusual to see so many characters be quite different to the way they are perceived normally.
Tavis: Was there a particular turn on or a challenge to you doing a period piece?
Bisset: No, I love doing period pieces.
I like it ‘cause you can actually express yourself with language, and I love language. And, Lady Cremone, the thing I had to get right was the voice. You know, there’s a million accents in England. And a certain kind of aristocratic voice. It’s not an – not a terribly – terribly one like there are people where you can’t – nobody can understand you, the people speak. And then all the other ones that go, you know. So but just to find – get her voice, and I did get her voice right. See, that class thing, getting her voice right, which thrilled me. Once I got that…
Tavis: You’re off and running.
Bisset: You know, well, I don’t know about off and running, but, you know, you feel, started – ‘cause it’s a pace thing, and also that thing of being used to people listening to her, she being the boss of many things, you know. Very wealthy and having all – and being very, you know, kind basically, but also deeply unhappy underneath. And, so all those little tonal qualities.
Tavis: I suspect you’ve been asked this question a gazillion times, but not by me.
Tavis: This is the first time we’ve met, so I want to ask whether or not you’ve ever had difficulty with being taken seriously for your acting versus your beauty?
Bisset: Well, I can’t answer that question. Thank you for the comment.
Tavis: I ain’t the first one to say that I’m sure.
Bisset: Yeah. But I never worried about that. Other people worry about that. I always felt that I felt ready, prepared, did the practical rehearsals, did all the stuff I needed to do, and I felt ready. And I was – believe me, I was not thinking about the way I looked. So if people choose to judge it, about how you look, that’s their situation. I didn’t feel that it was a problem. I’ve played all kinds of parts. I’ve played glamorous, and unglamorous, and all kinds of people. People want to pigeon hole you, I think. Once physique changes, you know, dealing with that is a part of growing older. And I’m happy to be in reasonably good shape for my age.
Tavis: How – but since you raise it – how have you dealt with it? Because that’s a difficult…
Bisset: Well, I haven’t dealt with it. I’ve just thought – doesn’t exist, I don’t believe in that, judging myself like that. You know, I just say…
Tavis: But Hollywood does though.
Bisset: Yeah, but, you know, you can’t please everybody. And if they want to criticize you, they’re going to find something to say.
Some people have said that I haven’t got the parts I should’ve got because of the way I look.
I think that could be true, but I find other parts. I consider myself very lucky. I started quickly, but then, you know, things slowed down and I actually learned what I was doing. Took me a while to get into the – I’m a slow learner.
My looks, I consider myself a character actress now, and that’s working out. You know, I’m getting chances to do things. I like the process – I don’t want to pretend I’m something other than what I am. And my looks are changing obviously, so I fuss like any woman if I look tired or whatever, I put on weight and blah, blah. But, you know, some part of me is very, kind of relaxed with it all and who will ever know whether that was a point – what – me being judged by the way I look, I don’t know.
Tavis: But when things started out really fast for you, by your own admission, and then they slow down, how did you navigate your way through the slow period? Why did you stick with the acting thing?
Bisset: Well, it wasn’t that it wasn’t working. No, it was working, but I wasn’t doing the kind of work I wanted to do, you know. I was in those big Hollywood movies sort of playing the female interest of – with things, and people said, “Oh, you didn’t, you were being used as a decoratively.” Bloody hell, I wasn’t being used decoratively. I brought qualities, I brought things, all kinds of things, and there’s a million actresses who are much more beautiful and are better figures than me, and all those things that go on when you’re in your 20s. No, but I had a quality and I represented some things inside. And, I believed in that, you know.
Tavis: It sounds – you know what it sounds like to me? It sounds to me like you’re downplaying…
Bisset: No, I’m not downplaying.
Tavis: …your beauty then and the impact that it had on your career.
Bisset: But I wasn’t encouraged to think of myself as a beauty, and I never thought I was a beauty. And I have moments…
Tavis: So – okay. So that’s how we processed you. How did you process yourself?
Bisset: That’s what I’m saying, I…
Tavis: How did you process it?
Bisset: I said I’m so lucky to be working.
And I’m learning, and I’m watching, and maybe I don’t find the role. I have found – I did find a film early on in my life with Jim Brown, called the “Grass Hopper.”
Tavis: I know it well, yeah.
Bisset: Yeah. And that was quite – I got great reviews for that, but I had to look good in that one. I was supposed to be a – you know, a showgirl or something. But that was encouraging, those reviews were encouraging. Then because the film was badly distributed, it really didn’t get much play. But it was – I sort of thought, well, what I did learn about that is I didn’t like being in every shot of the movie. I found that overwhelming, and I’ve since realized that I have a tendency to like roles that are sort of medium sized. I’ve forgotten what the question was.
Tavis: You answered it.
Bisset: Did I?
Tavis: Yeah – yeah.
Bisset: Did I?
Tavis: Okay. Which leads me to my next question.
Tavis: So it’s not just this project that we just talked about – I read somewhere that you have done, you played the wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn?
Bisset: I just did a movie…
Tavis: You just did a movie, yeah.
Bisset: Yes, with the French actor, Gérard Depardieu.
Tavis: Great actor.
But we’re not – it’s a loosely based, you know. It’s not a biopic of the story, and…
Tavis: It was quite a story though.
Bisset: It is quite a story.
Tavis: Trouble he got into in New York City of course, and the trial, and…
Bisset: Yes. And I play a woman called Simone and he plays a man called Devro [sic]. And I think it’ll be interesting – I think it’ll be – well, of course I’ve only seen scenes I’m in. I haven’t seen any of the other shooting. I suspect that it will have a pretty raw quality to it. And Abel Ferrara is a passionate man. It took me a minute or two to get use to him ‘cause he’s a real Brooklyn boy, and does all the expressions, and – you know. And, I really liked him. And he often asked us to get just don’t do the script, just improvise.
Tavis: Is that easier for you or more difficult for you, the improvisation?
Bisset: Well, no, if I know who I’m doing, I researched it quite a lot, and the only thing was difficult is when you’re with another language with somebody because some of it’s in French, some of it’s in English. And Gérard has more difficulty with English than I have with French, so we had to find a way of doing that, and we go in and out of French. And, I found him – you know, he’s such a big bear of a man, and I like him a lot. I’ve met him before, but he’s funny man. He’s full of – he’s got this strong – strong energy. I mean, he works all the time, and it was just in the period when he was announced that he was living in Russia because of taxes and all kinds of issues. And, you know, I think he just hated what the French government was saying about him. But he was lovely.
Tavis: To your point about his working all the time, have you found at this stage in your life the right balance for you of work and play?
Bisset: No. No.
Tavis: Still trying to figure that out?
Bisset: No. I’d like to work more.
I’d like to work more, but I don’t just want to do kind of generic characters. I want to do interesting characters, and I’d like to be cast against type.
That’s where it comes in to what you were…
Tavis: It took me 28 minutes to get there.
Bisset: No. No. No. [Laughter]
Tavis: Finally. [Laughter]
Bisset: No – no, but I’ve always said that. I could play that part. No, you don’t look like her. I said, “You don’t know me, I can be very, very different.”
And it’s not about – it’s my attitude. People don’t expect me to be doing what I do. I’m a very practical woman.
Tavis: Speaking of practical, I read – is it true that you drove around L.A. in the same Cadillac for like 30 years?
Bisset: Yeah. It’s actually more 1975, 85, 95, 105, yeah, 33 years.
Tavis: That is very practical.
Tavis: Same car for 33 years?
Bisset: Yes. It was a black 1970 Coupe deVille.
Tavis: Convertible, yeah – yeah.
Bisset: And it was the coolest car. I had such action at the airport, my God. All the guys were like, “Oh God, hey man.” But then what did not please me – ‘cause the first years, you know, I sort of looked cool with the car, and then there were people with the traffic lights, you know, these big dudes sort of stop me and go, “Hey look at that, look at that.” And I’d go, is it me or the car? It was the car. Oh, I had to really swallow then. Anyway.
Tavis: That speaks to your practicality.
Bisset: But, you know – the car, I would’ve never got rid of it but it went rusty. It was so rusty you could actually – one day I put my foot through the car and down to the ground.
Tavis: So you were like Fred Flintstone…
Bisset: So I thought, can they fix it, can they fix it. And I took it to a place in Sun Valley. Jay Leno had actually given me the address.
Tavis: Oh yeah, Jay knows.
Bisset: Jay knows and he said, “You can try them.” But they said, “Get another one, it’s just so rusty. Cost you a fortune.”
Tavis: So I’m thinking with your gorgeous looks and you’re driving the same Cadillac for 30 years, you should’ve made a killing doing Cadillac commercials.
Bisset: They never asked me. I should have.
Tavis: They were stupid.
Bisset: They were; I can still do it.
Tavis: To not have asked you; 30 years the same Cadillac?
Bisset: Yeah, well, they didn’t know. I’m very low key, you know.
Tavis: Well, come on, it’s a convertible. You couldn’t have been that low key.
Bisset: I know.
Tavis: Everybody in town saw you, that’s how I knew about it.
Bisset: Yeah. Well, people saw the car parked outside my house, and they didn’t think I drove it. They said, “Why is that car parked?” I said, “It’s just a bird – it’s a bird pooper, you know. You can just – it’s just there for the birds to poop on. They said, “What?” I said, “I’m just joking, you know. But I do drive.” And I drove it; I loved it. You could have the three seats in the back and the three in the front, you know, without dividers. Oh, it was fun.
Tavis: Nothing better than a gorgeous practical woman…who’s talented and smart and all that too.
Bisset: Well, I don’t know, but, yeah, she’s practical. No, I mean, no…
Tavis: I’ve enjoyed – I’ve enjoyed having you on.
Bisset: Is that finished?
Tavis: It’s – it’s 30 – yeah, see how fast that went? That means you got to come back again.
Tavis: There’s so much stuff about your life we didn’t even get to this time.
Bisset: That’s true.
Tavis: But we did talk about the new project.
Tavis: “Dancing on the Edge.”
Bisset: “Dancing on the Edge.”
Tavis: “Dancing on the Edge.” And when is the…
Bisset: It starts on the 19th at 10:00 o’clock on Starz.
Tavis: That I knew. When’s the other film coming out, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn?
Bisset: Oh, that I don’t know. But there’s another little movie coming out too. I did the film called the “Two Jacks,” which comes out on the 18th of October.
Bisset: So I play Sienna Miller’s older half. I play her when she – you know, 20 some years after some story, and Danny Huston and Jack Huston and bunch. That’s a very interesting little film too. It’s an independent.
Tavis: And yet you still want to work more?
Bisset: There’s – you know, life is long, there’s many days in it. [Laughter]
Tavis: All right. So, will you tell us once – that’s your camera right there. Can you tell us once again how you want us to correctly pronounce your name?
Bisset: Jacqueline Bisset.
Tavis: It’s our delight to have had you on.
Bisset: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you very much.
Bisset: Thank you.
Tavis: Pleasure was mine. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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