Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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How did you get on at school?

Well, we come to the first part of my misdemeanours. I was ... when I went to Yeronga State School it was okay, but I was always a little bit flighty I suppose, and then my dad went away and I was sent to boarding school in Towoomba, and I didn't like it at all, so I sort of rebelled, and I used to sort of jump out of the window and do things like that. And I was a sort of rebel. I mean I keep saying 'sort of' and I always notice that when I say 'sort of' it means that I'm trying to get out of talking about it. But I was decidedly unable to cope with the ... I just thought it was silly a bit, and so I started being quite cunning about it and I used to go to the corner telephone and ring up the headmistress and pretend I was my mother, and invite myself and other friends out for the weekend, or to get on the bus and leave. And in fact she was fooled by me. So she let me go, and then someone wrote it up in their diary in supervised prep and I was caught and got into a bit of a hassle. And then I ... we had houses at that school, and if you got black marks, you had to stand up in assembly, and your name was read out and one ... and if you got more than five you had to stand through the assembly. So one week I did get twenty-two and so they decided I shouldn't be in a house, because I was causing so much bad marks for the house, so, I sort of got a lot of people to come into Blank House with me, and that's when I think they realised that, I think, it was time to leave that school and move on.

How did you get people to go into No House with you?

Well you just made it. It was a better house than any of the others: Blank House.

How did you make Blank House better?

It was very attractive, because you didn't have to follow any rules. Blank House was exactly a nice empty sheet where nothing, nothing was accountable because you were so naughty that you were in Blank House. So I mean, other people thought it was attractive too. But then I went to Somerville House in Brisbane and I was pretty naughty there too, and then they decided: my eldest brother and my mother felt it was time that I had some parental control, so I went off to America and went to New York.

Now, before we do that, can we go back to school, because there are a couple of other things I wanted to ask you about. How did you do academically? You came from very academic family, with high achievers. How did you do academically? We're going to let him, her ... [MOLLY THE CAT INTRUDES]

You came from a very academic, high achieving family, how did you do with schoolwork?

Well, when I was, again, at Yeronga school, I did very well. I sort of was good at writing essays and all sorts of ... I was never very good at mathematics, and I was never very good at algebra, or ... I loved science, but I wasn't sure of it, because I never really ... [INTERRUPTION]

So how did you at school? How did you do academically?

Well I did ... at Yeronga State School I did very well. I was sort of, you know, around the top and all that, but I wasn't very good at mathematics and I wasn't very good at algebra or science.

Your parents were themselves very high achievers academically. Did they have the same expectations for you?

Yes. They had for all their children. But I think because, again, that idea of being down the line a bit, they weren't as totally fixated by cleverness and being top and everything as they had been with the elder children, and I think also there was that thing of girls. Girls don't have to do anything. Little blondie pretty girls don't really have to know anything much. They can go on in life and I think, actually, if the truth be known, the most surprising thing for my mother and father was when I was actually earning more money than them by the time I was about 18, because I think they thought that I was going to be the juvenile delinquent, the ne'er do well, who they'd have to keep worrying about, and clear up this wake of shit that went behind me: the terrible things that I'd done, and suddenly, there I was, quite in another bracket of, you know ... I just think it was very ... I mean, they must have had a huge shock when suddenly I had a contract and I was earning lots of money and [was] able to pay for them to come to England, and you know, it was just very surprising. But I did get a scholarship to RADA.

Well, before we get to that, while you were at school, when you went to boarding school, why were you sent to boarding school?

I think because my dad had gone to Germany after the war to do that work, and because I think probably my mother didn't want to cope with someone who was being very recalcitrant and [who] didn't quite know what to do after [the] scholarship, and that part of going to high school. I think, she probably thought it would be much better to send me somewhere where I was not being such a tomboy, [to] learn airs and graces and things that you did in schools at that time: you know, sort of deportment. I wouldn't be such a sort of little tomboy and, you know, rush around and not have any basis of female behaviour. I think that was it more than anything.

How did you relate to the other kids at school? Were you a natural leader, or how did you fit in?

At boarding school? At first I noticed ... and you had to wear your name across your chest and your back, and it was, obviously I had a pretty funny name. It wasn't Brown or Smith or Hughes, and I noticed that you had to to sort of work your way into some sort of clique in a way, and I had no intention of doing that. So I just sort of was funny. I tried to ... I was sort of funny and everybody thought I was a bit of a crazy, funny person, who'd do anything, and that's how I got to be acceptable to everyone. I think that's pretty accurate. I think lots of kids do it. They develop a way of making people laugh, and making them not sure of what you're going to do next. So they're always attracted to the surprising, the next thing that happens, and that's sort of what it was like, for me.

How old were you when you drew all the other kids in the school who were so inclined, into Blank House?

I must have been about thirteen. Just on the cusp of ... I did come to puberty quite late - later than most of the people in my class and everything. So I didn't have all that problem of worrying about periods and all that, so I was a sort of, I was intent upon causing a lot of madness happening. I was wicked, naughty, and I think that I liked it if that was happening. I liked the frisson of things going wrong, of laughing a lot.

The drama of it?

Totally. I mean I loved all that. And I'd been in the Alliance Francaise so I spoke French a bit, and I could speak a bit of this and that, and when you were taught those things by people who couldn't really do it, you know, you can send everything up, and, I mean, we did do some pretty wonderfully, imaginative horrific things to teachers. I think it happens all the time though.

Like what? What do you remember most?

Well there was a really vicious one that we did, which was: There was a music teacher, who was a little bit sort of doddery and so and so. We all got bubbles, and when she came into class we'd blown them like that and then hidden the things, and so the air was filled with hundreds. And she said, 'Oh girls, the air is filled with bubbles', and we all said, 'Bubbles? Where? What? Are you all right?' You know and all that. It's wicked, but kids do it all the time. And then she ran out and got other teachers and, of course, there were no bubbles there, and we'd passed along all the bubble stuff so they couldn't find it. So you know, those sort of things kids are very cunning at. They're very good at them: at torturing teachers.

What was your role in this? Was it your role to entrepreneur them, to think them up? What role did you play?

Yes, sort of. And sort of, if there was a distraction I'd sort of get up and jump out the window or something, you know. I mean I was quite out of hand. And in schools like that I don't think they expect that girls are going to behave in such an outrageous fashion.

So they didn't know what to do with you?

They really didn't. They did not know what to do with me. And I didn't know what to do with myself much either. I suppose in a way I really did want to go and join my dad and not be there. And anyway I didn't really ... I wasn't excited by the teaching of the school. I mean if they'd been intent on really teaching you things, I think, I hope, I would have been a little more attentive. But I was just intent on not being there.

What was your father doing in New York?

He had gone into [the] United Nations, and he was in the World Health Organisation. And he was you know, sort of living in New York.

Without your mother?

Yes. Because he had got this extraordinary job as a ... I think at one time he was the head of the World Health Organisation. I'm not quite sure, but he lived in New York, at the United Nations, just down the road from the United Nations.

And why didn't the family go with him?

I think because they were all embroiled in either university or going to schools where they were embroiled in sports and exams and things like that. My little brother did come, but he got sort of ... completely hated it. On the other hand, I found it fascinating in New York.

Who came up with the idea that you should go and live with your father in New York, as a solution?

I think they'd gone so far as to take me to a psychiatrist, which I didn't ... I mean he was a friend of my brothers, and I didn't take any notice of him. I just answered the same thing for everything he said. Because if he said anything, I'd say, 'Not more than any other girl of my age'. 'Not more than any other girl'. 'You're not really getting on with your mother'. 'Not more than any ...' I used to answer that. I was sort of like a robot and I think he got a bit fed up with me too. I only went about twice. And I think they said, 'Right, she just really needs a little parental control from someone she loves'. It's not that I didn't love my mother, but she was very occupied at that time.

But wasn't your father also?


So why was it decided that your father could handle you when your mother couldn't?

Well, that's a question. I think probably I ... yes, I was more malleable with my father, because he ... we had a deeply, deep understanding somehow. It wasn't just ... it was ... I don't know.

Did you ask to go to New York?

No. I didn't even ... I ... no, I didn't envisage it.

So it was decided that the solution to the problem of Diane was that she should be despatched to her father, who was very busy in New York, but there was some chance she might listen to him.

Yes, and that ... You see, then again I didn't behave very well there. I was sent to PS83, Washington Irving High School, on 17th and 3rd Avenue. We lived on 20th and 1st Avenue, so I just really had to ... it wasn't very far. But after the first few days, which I found frightening: classes, huge classes of terrifying people, and they used to ask the silliest questions and I didn't know what they were talking about half the time. After that, I never went. What I would do is I'd take the money to go to school and then I'd go, and I'd go to the Museum of Modern Art, I'd go to the Metropolitan, I'd go to Hayden Planetarium, I'd walk around the park, I'd go to movies on 14th Street, old movies, and I would walk around that town. I must have walked around it ... They found out, I mean, after the first term, that I'd only been for three days, but I'd always appeared at the right time. I mean, if I think about it now, if it had been my own child, I would have been horrified, but I thought it was just okay. I thought it was terrific.

Well, it was self education wasn't it?

Right, exactly. And I could have got in ... My sister, you see, had gone over there on a Fulbright Scholarship for Art, so she was hanging about on 14th Street at the studio of a man called Stanley Hater. And she had lots of extraordinary friends, sort of painters, of all people, etchers and different people, so I used to hang around the edges of that lot, and they all thought I was very funny too. I went, I think, if I think about it seriously, I got through my teen years by being a bit of a clown. That was the way I managed it, I think.

When did it come to light that you had not been going to school?

Well, when they ... At the end of that term and then ... I mean, I still didn't want to go there. So the solution to it was that I'd been dancing, I was in dancing, and I had done a lot of ballet, and I used to go to Carnegie Hall to my class. And I used to go up in the lift with all these people who were going to the American Academy of Dramatic Art, who would all be talking about these amazing things and I used to listen. And then one day I just kept on going and went up in the lift, and when I got there, they thought I'd come for an audition, and so they gave me these audition pieces, one of which was Juliet, one of which was ... some other bits and pieces. They always do that for auditions in drama schools. So, I went home and actually learnt it all. And then I went back, and I didn't tell anyone. I didn't even tell my father or anyone. And then I went and did this thing on a chair. I always remember it and they took me on straight away. And so then I had to go and say to him, 'Look, I've got this school I'm going to go to'. And then I got into the Barter Theatre of Virginia in the summer, and I went on tour as an assistant electrician and playing children. Because I wasn't ... I hadn't grown much then. And I'd grown to a sort of child size really, but I wasn't into a, sort of, grown up woman's size. So I went down to Virginia and I went on one night stands in that summer, and I did the plays, and I was then seen by someone from ... Margaret Webster, who said, 'I think you should go to RADA', because I was not an American, and so off I went. My dad and mum then had come together and they went on their second honeymoon in England, and I went over there and did the auditions and got a scholarship to RADA. But then I didn't ... I did one part ... I didn't tell my parents that it wasn't a scholarship that paid for your keep.

How long were you in New York?

Two years.

And so that was from what age to what age?

I think I turned ... I think I was there from about fourteen and-a-half to sixteen and-a-half. And, I mean, I was very young. And then I think I went to England when I was just seventeen, something like that, and I went to RADA when I was seventeen. But I had to earn money to live on, so I worked in Olivelli's wine shop after school. It was an off licence, and then I worked in Bertramell Circus.

So why didn't you tell your parents that the scholarship you'd got didn't carry with it a living allowance? Because they could afford to have ...

No they couldn't, hardly at all. They were ... I mean everybody thinks my parents are so well off and everything, but they spent everything they had on ... [INTERRUPTION] I mean they spent everything they had on keeping this huge mass of people afloat and rushing around, and I think they weren't able to afford ... I mean,anyway, I don't really think they thought it was a sensible idea, what I was doing really. I mean my father said to me, 'If you want to do acting, then you have to be successful', which is a silly thing to say in a way. And yet in another way I can see exactly what he means. But I was successful even when I was at RADA. I did a film, for which I got into a lot of trouble, because I still had a scholarship. So then I was in the world.

So without a living allowance, was there some element that you also perhaps felt that, as your parents, this wasn't exactly what your parents had had in mind for you, that you somehow or other didn't deserve the support. Was there a sense that you had to do it your own way?

Well, I think you see, I believe that all academics think that if the child doesn't go to university, they don't really ... aren't really a serious person at all, and that they're not really quite worth paying the money for, because they're going to do something, nothing very ... they're just going to get through or whatever. I'm not quite sure what they thought. But I don't think they took seriously the idea that the acting profession was something that you did if you were in that family. You know, it was that you were either a doctor or ... I mean I have three brothers who are doctors, and a sister. And I remember when my sister, who was a painter wanted to be a painter, she had to go to university and do a draftsman's course, otherwise she couldn't have been okay with them.

Without a living allowance, how did you survive?

With difficulty. But I, I used to ... I actually shared a dig with an American girl called Grace Chapman, who used to sort of ... I had a bike, I went to school on a bike, but then that got stolen and she sort of lent me a bit of money and then I had to sort of pay her back. So I had those jobs. I got one meal a day at Olivelli's, which was a very famous old place. I mean Stan Laurel used to stay there. It was in the next street from RADA. So I'd go there at five o'clock and I worked there until half past eight and I'd get a meal you see, a proper huge meal, which I used to eat a lot of, and then I'd go back on my bike. I mean you couldn't probably do it now. And then I'd get to school the next morning, and they had this fantastic system of what they called Rainbow Corner, where you had to put your name against a colour, and if you were late you got black, and if you had a scholarship and you got more than three, you were out. So I was very rushed at that time. And it was very interesting. I mean RADA was a very extraordinary experience in that, I didn't take it very seriously because I thought well, you know, I've been in a professional theatre. I've played kids, I've played things, I've been on one night stands, I was an assistant electrician. So I thought of myself as being quite, you know, already a professional. And then it was so. I was employed straight away.

What did you get from RADA?

Well I had what they call a hybrid accent. I didn't even know what hybrid meant then, and then I wrote a book called Hybrid because I liked the word so much. It means that ... when I came from America, I'd been in the Deep South and [DEMONSTRATING A SOUTHERN ACCENT] I had a right, sort of, talked like that a bit, and I had a bit of Australian stuck in there, so I had this weird hybrid accent, which they thought was quite funny, so I learnt to speak standard English. I learnt to breathe properly with my voice, and project. I learnt to fence and dance and stand properly and move properly and do all the scenes. And I did comedy Francaise acting. I did lots of things when I was there. But I didn't ... that wasn't where I really learnt to act. I had a teacher after that called Yet Namgren, who asked to teach me, when I was in a play with Michael Redgrave. And I went every day with him and learnt to take the stage and to become, to have control of what I was doing. And I learnt the theory of movement, which I still teach sometimes. And I was very, very ambitious then to learn a skill. I suddenly cottoned on to Shakespeare and got interested in plays and fascinated by people, fascinated by watching what they did exactly. And that's obviously the best part of learning any profession, when you're really going through those huge stretching escalated times of learning and energy, when you want to do it so much. That's what I was like then.

How did you get your first film role?

I was at RADA, and then I had gone to do Juliet at Manchester Library Theatre, right on the cusp of leaving. And someone saw me and cast me for this [film] as an angel. And I did a film called The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp. My husband still sends me up about it. He knows all the dialogue, and says dreadful things. But it was a very sweet film with some very good people, and Alexander Korda saw it and reedited it, and signed me up to a contract, a seven year contract immediately. So I didn't really have any of that time of rushing around and trying. It was all there on a big plate for me. And I was the last person he signed, ever. I then got the leading role in lots of plays in the West End, and I got the role of Helen of Troy in Tiger At The Gates, with Michael Redgrave. It was an American company. I did it in London with him, and then of course, off we went to America, and I thought it was going to be a huge flop. And it wasn't. It lasted for over a year and I won the Critics' Award. So suddenly I had a huge amount of success, just bang, very quickly, very young, and without really looking back or trying. I was just suddenly lifted into another sphere.

And what effect did that have on you as a person?

That's a hard one to answer now. I do know that I, that was when I started really ... because I've always had a lot of energy, but that was when I really never went to bed, I was up and about and raging around all the time. And I did get tuberculosis out of it, finally. I'm a tuberculous person, or was then. But that wasn't for a while. I mean I was raging around a bit before that, before I got sick. But I got - well I don't know - it was like a kaleidoscopic madness of people and restaurants and night clubs and things, and it was just an enormously vibrant, twenty-four hour life. Although sometimes, I mean when I did a film, when I did that film, The Angel and Her Harp, I was sent to Gerard's Cross to do it, and I had this teensy little room at the back of the place, because it was being shot there and they couldn't drive me up and down from London. And I can remember being in there thinking oh, I can't stand this, it's awful. And I used to have to get up so early that one day I caused them to lose a whole day's shooting by getting up and putting toothpaste all over my face, because I thought it was cream. And I don't know what happened, but I was a sort of a weltered wreck by the the time they took it all off. I didn't even know, I was so tired. That's because I never used to sleep much. But I think we all go through a bit of a time like that where we rage about. And if we don't it's ... I don't think you've ever really lived in a way.

Who were you raging with?

Oh, God, you say. Lots of people. I don't know. Friends my age, but then a lot of ... you know, if you were in the film industry at that time you were always sort of picked up by different directors who were much older and [you were] sort of whisked about and shown things and taken here and there. I did work very hard though. I was a hard worker, and I always knew my lines and I was ... but then I mean everybody was in a different way then. Life was ... I mean I don't know whether you remember it, but there were very peculiar night clubs then, where you'd go in and you'd think, do you really have to pay to be here? It's so horrible. You know, people used ... but the dance bands were great, and there were huge big bands like Count Basie and I used to go from the theatre to Birdland, when I was in New York, and just stay there, and they all knew me. I loved them. And I loved the big band sound, and Count Basie and Joe Williams and all that. I once took Michael Redgrave there. [laughs] He loathed it. But, it was a very, very exciting life. When I was in New York I ... See, I sort of fell madly in love with an Italian then and got married. And he'd run away from his home and I was sort of [a] run away from my home, in a way. But he couldn't come to New York. And we'd been married just before I just ... before I went to New York. And of course then his mother came, my mother-in-law, and [she] sort of stayed with me to see I wasn't racketing around too much. And I mean it was ... I was in that play for a year. I couldn't get out of it, and that's when, I think, I got a bit ill.

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