BACK STAGE WEST
February 26, 1998
ACTORS' DIALOGUE : Gloria Stuart & Frances Fisher
Reporting by Karen Kondazian & Rob Kendt
In the midst of the horrifying special effects and heart-wrenching tragedy of the multi-Oscar-nominated blockbuster Titanic, two images that stick with us the longest are of faces: that of the stern Ruth DeWitt-Bukater as she knits up the corset of her rebellious daughter Rose, who is about to throw over her wealthy fiance for a starving young artist, and that of the aged survivor Rose as she recalls in desolation the fateful night of the ship's sinking.
Providing these memorable images were actresses Frances Fisher, who played Ruth, and Gloria Stuart, who played the Older Rose (Rose the younger was played by Kate Winslet, and both Winslet and Stuart are nominated for Oscars this year).
Stuart, who was born in Santa Monica two years before the Titanic sailed, began her film career in 1930, appearing in such films as John Ford's Air Mail and The Prisoner of Shark Island, Here Comes the Navy with James Cagney, Poor Little Rich Girl with Shirley Temple, Busby Berkeley's Golddiggers of 1935, Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor, The Three Musketeers with the Ritz Brothers, and three films with the English director James Whale: The Invisible Man, The Kiss Before the Mirror, and The Old Dark House. Stuart more or less retired from acting in 1940 and has kept busy as an accomplished painter, collage artist, book artist, bonsai gardener, and hostess.
The redhaired Fisher is best known for her roles in Unforgiven and Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter, though her other film credits include Female Perversions, Wild America, Babyfever, Patty Hearst, and The Stars Fell on Henrietta. Following a diverse Off-Broadway and regional theatre career, she worked as a regular on The Edge of Night and Guiding Light, and recently starred in the Fox series Strange Luck. Prior to Titanic, she appeared in a limited run of Caryl Churchill's one-act Three More Sleepless Nights and recently appeared in Joan Tewkesbury's Jammed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Though Fisher and Stuart don't appear on-screen together, they've become friends since the film's shooting, and got together recently with Back Stage West at Stuart's homey Brentwood residence to discuss their craft, their careers, and Titanic.
Back Stage West: We'd love to know how the two of you got your roles in Titanic.
Gloria Stuart: Well, I'm a book artist, and one afternoon I came in from the studio and there was a message on my tape about this location shoot and the Titanic and all of these names--Lightstorm, etc. So I called a friend of mine, Marvin Paige, who used to be a casting director and was the only person with whom I had any contact in the film industry, and he told me it was Jim Cameron's company, and I said, "Who's Jim Cameron?" He told me, "Only the biggest director in Hollywood," and he made a call to the casting director, Mali Finn, for me. Mali wanted to know if she could come over the next day and talk to me. She came with her assistant and a handheld video camera. I had never seen one before.
They filmed me while Mali talked to me for about an hour about who I was and what I was doing. I had a fine time. She left around 3:30 or 4:00, and by around 4:30 she called and asked if she could send the script over. I said, "Yeah, fine." The studio's only 15 minutes from here, and I think that Jim saw some of that video and said, "Find out if she wants to read." He'd been turned down by several actors of my age who wouldn't read because they felt that their work spoke for them. So they sent the script over and by time I got halfway through the script I could taste it.
Mali called again a little after five to ask if I would read for Mr. Cameron the next day. I was so excited. She called back to ask if I would read without any makeup on, since Rose was a 101-year-old woman. I started to say I would read for him without clothes on! Jim came over the next day. I read and he stopped me twice and gave me a little direction, and that was it. I went on vacation to London the next day, but after a couple of weeks, I cut my trip short and came back and looked at the script again. I realized that I hadn't looked at Young Rose enough--I had studied Old Rose. So I wrote him a note saying that I would love to read for him again and give it a feistier reading, because Young Rose was feistier than I had remembered. I sent it priority mail so it wouldn't get lost on his desk. It went out on Saturday, and on Tuesday Mali Finn called and offered me the role. I didn't have an agent, I did it all myself.
Frances Fisher: You know, that relates to the story of Rochelle Rose, another actress on this movie, who plays the Countess of Rothes. She's a young woman, 26 at the time, and she found out that Titanic was being cast. She didn't have an agent, but she wrote a note to Mali Finn saying that she wanted to come in and audition. She went in and got the role. No agent.
Gloria: Everyone has said to me that from now on I have to have an agent, but at this point in my life, I don't want anyone selling me, going in and saying, "I think Gloria Stuart would be great for this role." Having seen Titanic, if someone thinks I would be right for something they're doing, they can come to my house. So what I really need to get is a theatrical lawyer for negotiations. I don't need anyone pitching me.
BSW: What about you, Frances? How did you get your role?
Frances: I got the call because I had been going through old address books in my house and I came across Mali Finn's name. I hadn't spoken to her for something like eight years. So I just called to say hello and reconnect. The following week my agents called and told me I had an audition for Titanic. Once I read it, I was so thrilled because I found this incredible character that was complex and had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn't stereotypical or one-dimensional.
I was put on tape and did three scenes with Mali, which she sent off to Jim, who was shooting the present-day sequences up in Halifax. About a month later, I was asked to meet Jim and do the whole ending of the film for Ruth--a line here, a line there. Impossible to create a flow, because of the varied emotional levels Ruth was experiencing. So at the audition, I asked Jim, who was taping everything with a handheld camera, if I could do each one as a separate scene. When it came to the lifeboat scene, I enlisted Mali Finn to get up onto the table with me. I stepped off onto a chair as if I were getting into the lifeboat. Jim said, "I should have brought a crane!" And he got his camera right in my face for the "close-up." It was great. I was so lucky that he was open to all of that.
BSW: It's inspiring that you had the confidence to take that kind of risk at an audition! Gloria, what does it feel like to have the option of a new career at the age of 87?
Gloria: Well, I just don't think old. I think, in the morning, How are my aches and pains? Are they better or are they worse? That takes my attention for about five minutes. Then, after that, I make do with the arthritis; that's about all I have to complain about. My life is very full with the things I want to do. There are two books that I want to design, illustrate, and print. Each one will take a couple of years. The first is a book about the butterfly kite. I've flown kites all over the world and I collect kites, so I want to do a kite book.
I'm very selfish about my time. I never "do lunch." I never shop. I don't go out at night. I don't talk on the phone during the day. I only play cards once a week. These are all things that I used to do a great deal. Now, I save myself. Because at my age, my energy level and the time that I have left is not forever. Most of the time I print, paint, or garden. I wear dirty sweatpants and sneakers and no makeup. I could do that for weeks at a time and just not surface. So I left acting by choice--except I left being very disappointed and very frustrated.
Frances: But don't you feel it's about passion? The thing that I feel happens to actors, and anyone who's in any creative field, or maybe even in business, is that if you have a passion for something and you're frustrated and not fulfilled, you have to find another way. Your passion has not changed--you've just found another way to channel your energy, your passion, so that's where you're putting your creative energy. If the right thing comes along, it'll happen. It'll work in your life now, because you're not giving yourself over to the exterior.
BSW: You two obviously come from different generations. How would you say you differ in your approach to acting?
Gloria: I have such a wonderful story about The Old Dark House. It was an almost 100 percent English cast, including Charles Laughton and Raymond Massey. It was Laughton's second film. His entrance was coming in out of the rain and he's panting, so before the take, he's running around backstage back and forth. I said to the director, James Whale, "What is he doing?" and he told me, "He's getting ready to come in." I said, "What do you mean he's getting ready? Look, [she pants], I'm out of breath, too, and I don't have to run up and down the stage for five minutes." He said, "Gloria, please." They were trained stage actors, and they were perfection. It was wonderful to watch their technique. This was only my third film. I had never been exposed to professional actors who had been classically trained.
BSW: Did you find it easy to slip into the work again?
Gloria: Someone asked me how it was to walk onto a set again. It was as though I never left. You just make sure that you don't crash into things. I worried that I might not remember the lines, that I might blow it. But I think that during the entire four weeks that I worked on Titanic, I only blew a line once, and that was because someone dropped something behind me and I was distracted.
Frances: The easiest thing about film, though, which took me so long to learn, is that it doesn't matter if you blow a line, because film is the cheapest thing. It doesn't matter. But coming from the theatre, it took me a long time to transition to the film style of working. You know, the master, the close-up, the over-the-shoulder shot. And having to do it over and over, and even if you get another impulse, you have to match what you did before.
Gloria: And be fresh.
Frances: And be fresh. You're trained in a play to go from beginning to middle to end in a scene, and if you screw up a line, you've got to keep going. In film, an actor has a choice of saying, "You know what, we've got to start over." The process is so different.
And what I've just learned is that even if I feel like I've screwed up, not to "cut" unless the director says to, because maybe there's something good in there. There was a whole scene on Titanic where I forgot my line. The scene before we get lowered into the lifeboats, one of my lines was, "Will the boats be seated according to class?" So it's the first night out on the boat deck, and it's night and there are all of these people. Jim's doing this tough shot of bringing the camera in handheld, through the crowd, and this one couple who's kissing and saying goodbye isn't working out, and we're finally on take seven and it's a little edgy, a little tense. The camera's coming through and it reaches me and I go completely blank. I was so in the moment of what was going on and how all of this would make me feel if I had been there that I went completely up. So I said, "Fuck!" because I knew I had blown the whole shot. At that point Jim said, "Why did you say that? We could have used that. You were so lost. That's exactly where Ruth should be!" And I was so thankful to Jim for that lesson. It was such great generosity.
BSW: Did he ask you to improvise at all?
Frances: Oh, no. We stuck to the script. We went exactly with the text. Although there was a time when we were between shots and they were setting up for another angle and Jim was watching Billy Zane and Rochelle Rose and me just kind of hanging out. He brought the camera over and told us to just keep talking but "put it where you are in 1912 and we'll just roll some film." Now I can tell this story because the producers are rich, so it doesn't matter: We spent an hour and a half improvising a scene between Billy, Rochelle, and myself, just giving character background. Jim just wanted to pull out as much as he could from what we all were doing. I'm sure we were not the only improvisation that he decided to do. It helped to layer the work.
I asked him recently about his intentions for a director's cut, because there had been talk of like a seven-hour CD-ROM that would include a lot more footage, and he said, "Frances, that was the director's cut." Every frame is his.
BSW: Did you rehearse a lot?
Frances: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio had a lot of rehearsals of the period stuff. We had etiquette lessons when we weren't working. Lynne Hockney came down and showed us what 10-course dinners were like and how to walk through a door, how you hold your glass or napkin.
I felt that I went to a different level with this movie, though, because I have never worked with a male director who gave me so much room to work. I felt an immediate respect from him, not only as a person, but for the work that I had to bring and the acting. And I saw him have respect for everybody else in the room. I remember Kate coming up to me and saying, "Frances, he never talks to me, I don't know if I'm doing well," and I said, "Listen, if there's anything I've learned in this business, it's that if a director doesn't talk to you, it's so much better than if he does. If they hired you, it's because they trust you to do the work, so take that as a compliment." To waste their time talking about what they think motivation is--that's the actor's work, and if you need a coach or a friend to work things out with, that's fine, but they expect you to show up and do it. The amount of respect that he still shows is tremendous. He's one of the greatest.
Gloria: As a writer, as well. What Jim had written for these characters was so involving. I feel very strongly that an actor cannot act without the words. Like an artist can't paint without the brushes. If a scene is written with words that don't contribute to an enrichment or a reality of the scene, then forget it. But I think it has to start with the words. If I don't feel any involvement, then there's trouble.
Frances: I think that's the problem with television. People are "community writing," which is really hard. I come from studying the classics. Stella Adler, in her great script interpretation class, taught you to try to understand the author and why he or she wrote that play. When you've got 11 writers, you get this mush. That's why some of the television is so bland; you don't get the energy of the human being writing from their own gut. It's gone through such a process that there's no character left. The actor doesn't get inspired by anything on the page, and they have to totally go inside of their heads and create something.
So it pisses me off that the Academy didn't give Jim a nomination for the screenplay. If it weren't for the screenplay, this movie would not have happened. The play's the thing. And obviously, this screenplay speaks to people.
Gloria: A lot of kids are going. My gardener's son, who does not have a lot of money, has gone three times! He's taking his friends! They're touched by this writing.
BSW: And by your acting, as well.