A Great Dame


September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood ‘cougar’

Guys and dolls

I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and take dance lessons. I ended up dancing with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden, hurt myself and became an actress by default. I started with a James Bond movie at 20 and I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. I finished that and went into theatre and shocked the newspapers, who kept saying I’d failed miserably because I was now being paid 12 pounds a week playing Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House instead of being a movie star… I just felt that I had a lot to learn, and I didn’t really want to run three paces behind a man with a gun, wearing short skirts. It wasn’t really what I had in mind.

Sense and scandal
I’ve been fortunate to have had a really varied career: East of Eden, obviously; Wedding Crashers is huge right now, so I’ve got a whole new younger generation who know me as ‘Kitty Kat’; and then there’s those who know me as a Bond Girl. That was a million years ago. I’ve played Maria Callas, Marie Antoinette – a lot of period work. I even made a move about the boat people in Hong Kong, shot in Penang. It’s called the Keys to Freedom.  I actually had to learn Cantonese overnight. They got this young Cantonese Hong Kong actor and he said, they want you to curse in the most horrible way possible at the woman who runs the whorehouse (in the scene). I said well, can you translate it for me into English? And he said, no, there are words in Cantonese that the English haven’t even discovered – but trust me, this will have an impact! So I learned this thing and then the next day all the people there on set went Oooh! And then I tried a bit of it in a Chinese restaurant about a year later in England and they went Oooh!

Long runs

Nineteen years ago I started [the TV series Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman] and it ran for seven years; it’s in 98 countries and still plays every day in America and France. Apparently it plays in China too. Somewhere in Time is huge everywhere. It’s the longest running movie in the history of Hong Kong cinema – a year and a half! In fact it was so crazy that when it came out and it ran for over a year  I came out it here at the invitation of Sir Run Run Shaw who sat me next to him just because he had to check me out and ask, why this movie?! People watched it fifteen, twenty times. Chris Reeve was my closest friend in the world after making that movie. I’m very involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and people with disabilities, in fact we’ve ramped our whole house. Thanks to Chris we met some extraordinary people with disabilities.

Art and advocacy
To help organizations that don’t have a voice is an extraordinary thing, and that only comes from having had some success in my artistic ventures. It has been a huge privilege, being able to pass a message or advocate for global water rights, or work for the American Red Cross in Africa. I’ve been supporting this programme, My Day for RA, because one of my best friends and the woman who told me how to paint developed rheumatoid arthritis and we didn’t know what it was at the time. She’s a health nut, but all of sudden she was with me one day and her feet blew up like balloons, and her hands too. She was in so much pain, she couldn’t pick anything up, she couldn’t dress herself.  They didn’t test her for RA until she came to them having looked on the Internet, and they got her on Enbrel, and she now can paint, has a life. But I’ve met a lot of RA patients now who didn’t get treatment in time.

Cougar du Jour
The good news is that for some reason [film producers] don’t think I look my age. I’m 60 in February. The bad news is that I can’t really play 40 because there’s plenty of 40-years-old who like to play 40. So they meet me and say, well she can’t really play the grandmother…  But I am playing inappropriate older women. Cougar du Jour!  My husband had to request that we lighten up on the cougar work, however I think it’s wonderful. I have girlfriends who are cougars, and I just play one, which is a lot safer. I can be happily married, have six children and just embarrass myself.  Sometimes I think I’m the only one who hasn’t had all the plastic surgery done – well I haven’t had the facelift anyway – and I keep thinking, do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I?  Maybe I should – like the British actresses, Judie Dench and Maggie Smith – just nab all those roles with my natural wrinkles.

I also have girlfriends with big duck lips. Why, when you’re health conscious, would you inject botulism in your face?  And as an actress, why would you paralyze the only part of your body that can show emotion? We made a movie once about Fanny Kemble –an English actress in the 1800s who married an American slave owner. We have a scene where I was with a Canadian actress, and these slaves are hanging from a tree, on fire – they were real stuntmen.  I’m like, tears pouring down my face, and this woman’s there, and she’s a great actress, but… nothing moved! And while we’ve still got these poor guys in flames, my husband (the director) yells ‘Cut! Please show me some emotion!’ And I said,’ James she can’t! She’s injected herself with something!’ So you know, they put out the guys…

Heart to hearth
I have dual citizenship. We live in Malibu; we don’t have a home in England any more. We had a beautiful home in Bath, over a thousand years old. We had it for 26 years and it’s the love of my life, but the expense of keeping a manor house… it came to the point where I had to say goodbye. I love going back to England and a huge part of me will always be British, but there’s something really exciting about living in America. It really is the melting pot of the world.

I have six kids and my children were raised there. It’s quite funny, parents often contribute to helping in the classroom. They got me to mark some papers – which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’m quite a determined ‘A type’ personality, and when I discovered that every single one of them had made the same mistake I realized that I had cracked a curious problem in the American system.  I was putting red circles around ‘flavour’, ‘favourite’ – all the ‘ours’. Then they very kindly said, you may go now! Please go and be an actress and leave us with the education.

One of the kids has suddenly become a rock musician. He’s been discovered by the head of Warner Brothers – he’s fourteen. We’re incredibly excited. I’ve come up with a new word : I’m a ‘Modie’, a mother and a roadie.

Cash and credit
My husband is a director and we produce movies. I just finished a film I really love called Love Wedding Marriage, with Mandy Moore, shot in New Orleans. We did Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash one. He was on Dr. Quinn back when nobody cared about Johnny Cash, and my husband James Keach directed him, and we became very good friends, June, John and I. Johnny said, one day someone’s going to make a story of my life and I don’t trust anyone in the world, but I trust you; what do you think story should be? So James went on tour with him, as did I, and came back to Johnny and said, it’s about redemption – about coming back from hell in a belief in a higher power and the love of a good woman. We named my twin sons after their godfathers, one Johnny and one Kris, for Christopher Reeve.

We have another [film] coming out later this year called Waiting for Forever that stars Rachel Bilson. I love finding the scripts, working on them to make them better, getting great writers to come in and do rewrites. The casting and the editing is all done at the house too so I can see how you can turn really good movie into a great movie just by moving scenes around. It’s fascinating as an actress to be on the other side. It gives you a huge advantage when you’re acting because you know what they need.

Seeing the light
I’ve had three near death experience. One time, I was in Madrid making a movie playing Maria Callas and I got bronchitis.  They sent in a hotel doctor, but the nurse who injected me hit an artery and I got anaphylactic shock. They resuscitated me, but I’d left my body and saw what was going on, and realized at that point I wanted to live. I saw the white light and tunnel and everything, and I said please, put me back in my body; I want to raise my children, not waste any time in my life and help other people. People say why do you do some much and I say well, when you’ve actually almost not been here anymore you have a completely different perspective on everything.

Dutch courage
My mother (pictured below) was from Holland; she lived in Indonesia from the time she was 20 in a tea plantation, and was incarcerated for three and a half years in World War II, in three camps. I took her back there about 20 years ago and she was able to tell her story. That’s what the whole Open Heart [project] is.  She said, darling when life’s tough and you think some things are insurmountable, go out and help someone else. And when she was in the camps and they had no food, medicines, nothing, she said ‘I nursed until the end of the war. I nursed all these people who were dying, and all these men they brought in with dysentery, and I laid them out and tried to talk to them and caress them and help them, and that’s the only reason I was able to stay sane’.  She said when times are tough, help someone else – it’ll help you. And that’s always been my mantra. And then I came up with this little squiggle which became the Open Heart [symbol], which has almost become a whole philosophy in America. After 911 my prayer was that somehow as the world becomes smaller we can open our hearts to our humanity, and be in the present moment, and be open and receptive to other people’s ideas and culture. I had one necklace made for myself, from my painting, and when I did Dancing with the Stars I was wearing it, and met the people from Kay Jewelers and they loved the symbolism. I said well as long as we can have a foundation and help people with it.

Quiet creations
I paint for a living and I raise a lot of money with my art. I love to be creative; it really doesn’t matter if it’s walking around the garden picking vegetables and coming up with some great meal, or picking flowers and painting them and making a flower arrangement, or creating a role, or being on the other side of the camera helping create a film. Now I also design home furnishings and we actually make them right there in Mainland China; they do amazing work.
I don’t do anything that the press tend get terribly excited about. It’s like: she’s happily married and has six children and they seem to be well behaved, end of story – next! She’s wearing that outfit this week, oh, that’s of interest! And her hair’s still the same – how boring, she hasn’t even coloured it differently!  But Dancing with the Stars was fun. As far as America’s concerned right now, that is my claim to fame. Forget that I’ve won awards for acting or whatever, or the OBE. No – Dancing with the Stars!