On the edge of glory
As Jacqueline Bisset returns to the screen in a new period drama, she tells Stephen Milton about starring with Steve McQueen, lunching with Audrey Hepburn and her goddaughter Angelina Jolie
'I've often thought being a showbusiness journalist must be absolute torture," a playful Jacqueline Bisset says, adding a little provocative spice towards the end of our interview.
"I know when I go to a party in Los Angeles with a lot of young actors and hear them talk about themselves, I think, 'Oh crikey, this is so boring. It's just deja vu'."
The Hollywood newbies of this world could learn a thing or two from Bisset, an enduring icon of modern screen classics 'Bullitt', 'Airport' and 'The Deep'.
"Personally, I feel like I chatter too much but, at this point in life, one has so many stories to fall back on," she says.
"However, young actors when they start out, they sound too similar. They just need to learn how to not be so boring."
Bisset is currently starring in BBC period drama 'Dancing on the Edge', but at the height of her fame, 'Newsweek' declared her "the most beautiful film actress of all time".
The star's mesmerising green eyes and liberated sensuality represented a shift away from Brigitte Bardot's doe-eyed temptress and the pneumatic charms of Raquel Welch.
Fiercely intelligent, the bi-lingual daughter of a French attorney and a British doctor grew up in the Berkshire town of Reading.
Her initial forays on to the big screen were, as she once described, "pure window-dressing", leaving her helplessly frustrated.
After playing the marvellously titled Miss Goodthighs in the 007 spoof 'Casino Royale' in 1967, the actress, and godmother to Angelina Jolie, signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and landed a string of insignificant 'girlfriend' parts in 'The Cape Town Affair', 'The Sweet Ride', and alongside Frank Sinatra in 'The Detective'.
It was while working opposite Audrey Hepburn in one of her earlier jobs, 'Two for the Road', that a young Bisset found herself captivated by the screen legend.
"I found it fascinating how she didn't eat at lunchtime," Bisset reminisces.
"She'd have a tomato and a piece of cheese and used to sleep during the lunch hour. That was her way of keeping up her energy. But on the weekends," she adds, "Audrey would have these wonderful dinner parties and make very fattening, delicious pasta. Quite a reversal from this incredibly disciplined person on set, who I was awestruck by."
Bisset (68) takes a pause, audibly scrutinising her last statement. "None of this was about dieting. This was simply her way of maintaining energy."
It was Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Mustang GT 390 Fastback, tearing through the streets of San Francisco, who cemented Bisset's A-list status. Playing the girlfriend once again, she provided a sexy, yet thoughtful conscience for McQueen's 'Bullitt'. It scored big at the box office and, overnight, the actress became a movie star.
Reports circulated of a brief romance, though Bisset's memory of the ultra-cool ladies' man is of a person with a somewhat perplexing character.
"He was highly strung and very anxious, as it was his first project from his production company," she says. "And I remember he hated being among a crowd.
"He would zoom in and out of the set in a cloud of smoke on his motorbike, always going somewhere, doing something.
"He was very pleasant and charming, though I sometimes didn't understand what he said, as he was really into this 'jive talk'. It was all about 'dudes' and 'soul chicks' and I didn't know what they were. I still don't know what a soul chick is, although I have my suspicions."
Entering the 1970s as one of the biggest stars in the world, Bisset made wise, bold moves, straddling mainstream with a desire to maintain her Francophile roots.
Blockbusters such as 'Airport' with Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster were counteracted by Truffaut's 'La Nuit Americaine' and 'Le Magnifique' alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo.
She exercised her classic foundations with Sidney Lumet's 'Murder on the Orient Express', in the company of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and Vanessa Redgrave.
In 1977, she took the plunge with Nick Nolte and Robert Shaw in 'The Deep', a nail-biting monster hit from 'Jaws' writer Peter Benchley, ably assisted by Bisset's wet body, clad in a clinging white T-shirt during the film's daring opener.
Her salary and visibility soared. The shoot, however, was a terrifying experience.
"I was petrified of the water and they told me there weren't going to be many underwater shots, just a few dives here and there," she says. "We ended up spending two months on land, and three in the water. How's that for 'here and there?'"
Mischievous Nolte and Shaw added fuel to the fire.
"They were two scamps, constantly larking about," she laughs. "Robert was incorrigible. He'd always joke about while we were diving and ultimately make me laugh, which would make my mask fill up with water. All fun and games until I couldn't breathe, desperately scrambling for the surface."
Bisset dreamily chuckles, then interrupts herself. "Anyway, that was so long ago and I don't like talking about it over and over. I'd prefer to talk about 'Dancing on the Edge'."
In the BBC's latest period offering, she is Lady Lavinia Cremone, a high-society doyenne who offers assistance to a struggling black jazz band in racially intolerant 1930s London.
Among a cast of esteemed players – Matthew Goode, Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Goodman – her influential grand dame rules proceedings in Stephen Poliakoff's drama with a withering roll of the eyes.
It's a dream role, she says: "I always felt I fitted in quite well to this period-style material. Lady Cremone is so terribly complex and deep, with this thoughtful history," says Bisset.
"She lost her two sons in the First World War and has lived as somewhat of a recluse for many years, but there's a twinkling that happens when she meets this group of jazz players."
Bisset adds: "What I love about 'Dancing on the Edge' [is that] it's period, but not all gooey romance; it's about themes of anti-Semitism and racism."
Throughout her career, Bisset rarely played ball with the gossiping press. Never married, she held the belief that marriage can destroy romance.
There have been several long-term partnerships with producer Victor Drai, Russian dancer Alexander Godunov, and a 14-year relationship with actor, Michael Sarrazin, whom she met on the set of 'The Sweet Ride'.
She is now in a new romance, but won't say with whom, although her opposition to marriage appears to be wavering. "I think maybe I could do it now," she said in a previous interview. "It would be easy for me to fall into wifely behaviour."
It's an attitude that sounds similar to that held by her goddaughter, Angelina Jolie. Do they remain in contact? "I haven't seen Angelina in two years. She's a wonderful woman and a wonderful actress."
Would they ever work together?
"Of all the young actresses [in Hollywood], Angelina would be my choice. She is just remarkable and intelligent. I would love that some day," she says.
Creeping ever closer to her 70th birthday, the face of Avon cosmetics is as alluring as ever. Ask her if she ever got a little cosmetic help and she replies flatly: "None."
"It all comes from inside. I'm not into plastic surgery because I haven't seen it being particularly successful on people. They end up looking slightly different.
"It's genetics, exercise, food and thoughts – it's very important the way you think. Think generously and get rid of the jealous doubts. They ultimately make you look horrible."
With that, Bisset says her goodbyes, rounding off with a semi-apologetic disclaimer. "I do tend to deviate from the subject so very easily. There have been many strands to my answers."
Not at all.
"No, I know I blather on too much and probably give too much away about myself. But I like to be open, and I like to be honest."
Young Hollywood, heed these wise words.
'Dancing on the Edge' is on BBC2, Monday at 9pm