Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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Nature has always been very important in your life, hasn't it? When did that begin, and how did it all develop do you think?

I think really it began when I was a child at the beach, where I just felt as though I was part of it and I was in it all day. And I never felt frightened, or I never felt out of place in it, and I always sort of really loved it, even sort of dead leaves and things, I thought were great. And I still do, strangely enough. It gives me a huge sort of joy to be ... I don't like being in cities in that way all the time because of that thing. Because you can virtually hear the trees going argh because they're so overworked. And you can always see with trees and ... I love growing fruit too ... when it's been overstressed by human participation in its bringing about what it's doing. I think, I think nature has put up with a lot from us. We're pretty bad at it.

And yet you went away and were involved in what you could call an intensely urban life, where you were at the theatre and involved in the film industry. What did that do for you? I mean how did you deal with the fact that you were actually, you know, something of a nature child?

Well, when I first went to New York, you know, I did actually, for three weeks, I wouldn't go outside, because I was totally overpowered by this huge black thing, and it was cold, and I thought, why did they put this here. They must be mad. People's hands are sort of freezing and I'm ... and it's all dirty and hideous and everybody's so bad tempered. And then once I'd got my ... They sort of sent me to the shops to go and walk around a bit, because I was really terrified and I felt nothing but fear for the physicality of New York when I first went there. Then I really ... I moved around and said, yes, this is pretty exciting. But it did take that long to adjust to just that thing of never walking on anything, unless you consciously made an effort to walk on dirt, you were actually walking on concrete all the time. And I did have ... I used to cry a bit sometimes. I mean even in London and everything when I was a student because I really did miss seeing the sea and being outside, and you know, London does close in for the winter, with the skies there, and it never seems to come up and open up for you. So yes, I have always felt the ... missing nature if I'm not in it.

And how has that affected key decisions in your life? Have you made decisions because of this 'missing nature'?

I'm sure one has sort of unconsciously, that's been a factor in making decisions about where I went. But I also, you know, I mean everybody can be also overcome by that terrific excitement that there is in the city when you're going round to hundreds of places. You don't think of anything else. So I suppose really I've had a pretty good balance of both. But I'm now a bit addicted to this. After two weeks in the city I think it smells pretty funny and there's nothing really to do: you can't walk outside and pick a lemon or, you know, sort of get a few herbs, you have to go to a shop and get them. How ... what an imposition, you know. You get spoilt: you're just spoilt by the ability to have so much around you that's growing and useful and nice and part of your food.

When you were away from Queensland, did you miss the particular environment of Queensland?

Definitely. Especially when I went to London, which does ... I suppose it's about as opposite as you can get. I think really you miss the sky, and you miss an open sea and you miss blueness. And ... Although funnily enough when I first went to England, all those little green, green paddocks with little jumping lambs and things, I thought, this is ridiculous, this place is ridiculous. I didn't actually love it. I don't like that green colour as much as our green colour, which is much more grey. [PHONE]

Is there any particular environment that you feel more akin to than any other? Any part of nature that you feel you belong?

Yes, the rain forest. I love its excessiveness and I feel very safe in it. Also, you can't stop looking at it. It never is not having enormous amount of hidden treasures inside it: looking at it. It's got ... The rain forest is extraordinary, especially this rain forest, an antique rain forest, which is obviously the little bit left that Australia used to be when it was Gondwanaland. There's about ... I think one percent or two percent, and that, I think, is even being eroded by cane farms and things. But happily enough, this is that part of that little bit that's left. It's odd, because it clearly needs exactly the right configuration of mountains, sea, rainfall: everything has to be just right to grow it like that. And perhaps, as you've probably seen in different parts of Australia, there are little pockets of this magic place in Victoria and Tasmania, where the rain forest has been left in tact. And when you get there you know you're there. And that's what I like the best. And I like water holes. And waterfalls. That's it. Oh, and beaches. But I do like the tropics better than the cold. I've never felt akin to places with snow or huge mountainous snow, avalanchy-type places. That's not my ... I've never been to them much.

Was it hard for you that you lived at a time when in order to be a success as an actress you had to be an ex-patriot?

Yes. But you know, the thought never came into your head really that you could follow your profession here. Not really. It was always ... as it still is in a funny way a bit ... that you have to be recognised in America or England before you're recognisable as an actor, actress or whatever you want to call it. And I think really, that is ghastly, and I do think it will change. I think it is changing, but I think: yes, it's still there. I don't think in Australia, the acting profession is taken as a serious profession really. It's sort of like the hobby profession for most people, and especially in a place like this, you notice the amateur actors - their friends come and tell me, 'You're wonderful, darling'. And of course they really think that they've cracked it, that that's what it is. Little do they know that acting is such an incredibly hugely ... a skill which you have to go from go to woe. It is a very hard discipline. It has nothing to do with making up your own words and your friends coming backstage and telling you you were great. It's actually a very lonely process. Although rehearsal is the best of time of acting. It's a discovery that is actually really probably lying in bed or sitting on the loo that you find: argh and you know. And then when you put it into practice it works. That's a great feeling for acting. I love it.

What is it that you know?

You suddenly get hold of the sort of entrails of that person, and you absorb the possibility of being able to completely create that creature, whoever they are. Sometimes you can get bored with them and think, oh, do I have to go and be that person again, what a drag. And I did get like that after a while. Sometimes I really didn't like the people I was playing at all.

What part do you remember that particularly made you feel that way?

Well I did a play - I just was thinking about a part - I did a play called The Big Knife, and I was playing a sort of Hollywood starlet who was completely vapid and a dizzy bimbo type, and she was so stupid, and wasn't funny stupid like sort of you know Billie Holiday day was - and then a Judy Holiday type of part. It was a sort of silly, sad creature, and I used to get angry with her. [laughs] But once when I was playing her I ... because she was supposed to be a bit drunk, I did get a bit drunk playing it. To try it. It was only on the matinee, but my God, I never did it again because I was so out of control. Of course I thought I was wonderful in it, and the guy who was playing opposite me - who happened to be Sam Wanamaker - came and said, 'You're flying, what are you doing? You must be out of your mind. You can't play a part drunk', so I just ... I stopped doing it then. But it was really because I wanted to feel how it would feel to be her in that way, not knowing what I was doing. And I didn't.

You were an astonishingly successful actor. I mean you went and you very, very quickly started winning awards for acting. You were very good actor, not just a film star, as they say, a really good serious actor. Where do you think that came from?

Well, I do think if I look at this, that I listened to the story telling and I never felt ... because my dad used to imitate everybody doing it ... I never felt out of place by pretending to be someone else, if you know what I mean. I think often people get embarrassed if they are sort of telling a story and they have to be someone else, you know. And I think that was the beginning of not feeling - there's a ... because acting is really make pretending real. It's a baby thing and you can do it - it's quite childish. And that's why, you know, I've had Aborigine kids here who've been acting and they can do it so incredibly well. But acting is more than that in that you have to remember what you did and be able to reproduce it. And that's where professionalism and amateurism part ways. Because nobody who ... Some people can absolutely do incredible things just off the top of their head, and then you say, 'Ah, that was it, do it like that', and they say, 'What did I do?' And then you've lost it because they then become very self conscious about being good at that bit, and then they're dreadful. And that really is what you have to learn as an actor: to reproduce the improvisational spontaneity, but do it every time. Of course every performance is different. It's different.

For you as an individual, what appealed to you most about acting?

Well, that's very hard to say, because I don't know. It's like anything that you're constrained to do. I mean if I suddenly decided that I would be do anything to be able to cook like Bocuse or somebody, you know, that I would take the trouble to strain every little thing and do extraordinary ... I don't know all the sort of things - the blanching and fiddling about with food. I don't cook like that, I prefer to cook very quickly and simply. But there comes a point in acting when you will do anything to get it right, and that I think is the joy about anything. I mean if you are a painter or a wood carver or a flautist you suddenly become obsessed by getting the thing right and being perfect, or being as near perfect as people could get, or getting as near to it as you can. And you become obsessed with the skill of it. Just like any profession, or creative profession I'd say.

Any art?

Any art. You become fixated by the possibility of being able to do it well. And also it gives you a big charge too. It's also ghastly. I mean everyone knows that every actor makes a complete arsehole of themselves by getting on the stage. But you have to overcome that and get into another dimension, when the audience forgets about that. But lots of people, really like to be somebody else, and I think that was a necessity for me too at that time in my life.

You left your career as an actor really when you were still in full flight with it, weren't you? There were still lots of possibilities for you?

Oh yes.


Well, I think I sort of OD'd on going to the theatre for six days a week and performing eight times, and I think I also didn't need it any more. I think I had arrived. You see, I mean looking at this in retrospect, I think when you are down the family line and all the others are doing this, you sort of have to prove yourself in a way that makes your life sort of have meaning from a skill point of view. If your family is full of people who are skilful at various different things, and you want to have approval. I think that's part of it too. I think actors need approval. At least all the actors I've ever met.

And what got you to the point where you didn't need that any more?

I think because I had arrived at a place where I was more sure of who I was, and I didn't need to be told that it was okay to be like me. Because, you know, one always feels as though one's a bit of a freak. I mean I think I probably am, but anyway. But I mean we all do, because we live inside our skins and we can't really see what other people think of us and we think: if they behave in a funny way towards us it must be something we're doing wrong or peculiarly. So we spend a lot of time worrying about ourselves. And I think what happened was, I changed my point of reference. I stopped being - looking at out of the old bigger persona maniac's eyes and starting looking ... I changed my balance. And I think that I started looking out at things in the world in a different way, which I think was much more less like an actor and more like a person with more horizon. Because actors have to have tunnel vision a bit, because they have to play their own part. They're not playing anyone else's, whereas a director has to see the thing as a whole, and I became much more interested in seeing the plays or the construction of things as a whole.

You did move into directing and you directed both for the stage and also with documentary film making. How did you find directing, and what do you think it was in you that was drawn to doing that?

Well I sort of fell into it by mistake, and had to pick it up very quickly. But luckily when I did that, I'd already been to that school, which had sort of given one the confidence to tackle anything if one had to: a necessity. And so I found it very interesting, in that ... Documentaries I found very interesting in that I never ... and I don't think documentary people do know exactly what they're going to see. They may have reccied it about twenty-eight times, but they still don't know what they're going to get on film. So what I found terrific was I ... If you have a good cameraman - when you have a good cameraman, what happens is that you're pretty sure of getting some interesting looking shots. The joy of it for me was going into the editing room and fiddling around and putting all those things together, like a sort of jigsaw puzzle. That was joyous, and I think putting music to it and making the whole thing come together, I think is a very wonderful experience. It's different from acting, because there it is in front of you. You've got it there, you can see it again, and you can also say, 'God, I shouldn't have done that', but at the same time you can say, 'That's a whole piece of work from the beginning to the end, and I've somehow done the best I could with it'. And it's all of a piece, and that's what I think is the joy of film making, especially documentary - even though you haven't got control over your material exactly like a film director, like Hitchcock or someone, who knew every ... done his story board and every single shot was sort of worked out - sometimes by his wife. But they thought very alike. So in some ways, documentary making - I like the hazard of it. And I love hazard. I think hazard is an ingredient if we didn't have, nothing could happen.

So you're a great risk taker?

How did you guess? [laughs] No, I think ... I don't like that term 'calculated risk', because it's a tautology really. I think risk is part of being alive and I think if you don't take risks, I think you sink into a sort of crystallised, cemented state, and you may look wonderful or be wonderful, but at the same time you can't move out of that, and I think that's the beginning of death, in the least good sense of the word.

One of the things that affected your early career as an actor, was the fact that you - the way you looked. That you were at a time when physical beauty was absolutely crucial for a young actor, a young female actor, to get an opportunity. You had what it took. How did you feel about that and what was your ... Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of your relationship with your body and your appearance?

Well, actually I'd slightly disagree with you, especially in England, where I think actresses need to be a bit ugly in a way, because they're not taken seriously unless they're slightly sort of quirky looking. I mean I'm not going to name names, but there are a lot of people who are what you call jolie maid. But the thing is that I think it's a double edged knife. One, I can ... you can see that people get very nervous and twitchy about you if you don't fit into a sort of pigeonhole, and my problem I suppose was that I was too ... as soon as you go into a studio, and I had signed a contract with British Lion, they start fiddling around with you. They fiddle around with your hair, they fiddle around with everything. They change your ... sort of put funny huge ... change everything: huge eyelashes, and this and that, and you look at yourself and you think, who is that? And they've turned you into a sort of bimbo mostly. Because that's what they feel comfortable with - with a blonde person of a certain age. They like that, because then they don't have to worry about you. If you sort of have a few things to say off your own bat - you're not supposed to be like that at all, you're supposed ... It's the sort of Marilyn Monroe syndrome, isn't it? I mean, if poor old Marilyn probably had come out with the exactly what she thought, which sometimes she did, I mean she couldn't have been considered by the majority of men in the world, in that position, the sort of total sex object. So it's a bit of a straddling of two worlds. Who am I? I used to put on wigs a lot: black ones, which I did in Tom Jones, or red ones. I went red for Hombre, anything to sort of try and get away from the sort of starlet look. And there was a starlet look where you had your hair blonde and you fiddled around with it. Everyone ... they tried to make everyone look exactly the same. There was A Look. And it didn't matter how you resisted it, as soon as you sit in the make up chair they're at you. You can't do anything, [or say] 'Get off', you know. But I think as soon as you start acting on stage, no one can fiddle with you. You see, you do your own makeup and at the Royal Court of course, and with Tom Jones and things like that, I did my own make up. Whereas in most films everybody's [got] two or three make up people patting you down and fiddling around with your hair and twidging and tweaking you. And after a while too, that gets incredibly irritating.

In your life in general, do you think it's been an advantage or a disadvantage to you that you are physically beautiful, or conform to an idea of beauty that's the standard idea of what beautiful is in the western world?

Yes, I think really, especially when you're young, you don't realise how many things are sort of allowed you because you are attractive physically. And then when you're not so attractive physically, it all slightly changes. And you think, what happened? You realise what happened, you got older. I don't mind getting older at all in a way, because I feel sort of as though I'm free of that saddle that one was wearing about people's ... It's people's image of you that you're not really like, that is the problem. I think really ... I think freedom, I think Franz Kafka who said that freedom was the word that had misled man and woman more than any other word. I think freedom is an inner state. I don't think ... I think you can be very free in gaol even, but I think you've got to feel well-being and a feeling that you're not attached to anything so much that you suffer terribly if it's gone. And I'm talking about beauty or whatever: youth. I think you can't ... I mean why? The wrenching and horror of that in most people's life is just sort of, I find, something they don't need. They should get away from it, because it is such an awful thing. It can confine them and make them not free. They're caged by the feeling that they have to apologise for being old, or apologise for being ugly, or not so beautiful, or whatever it is. I think really we are in a very odd society, which doesn't respect anything over forty years old, or just about. And I think this is a very odd. It's never been like that in society, ever before. I mean in other countries age is respected in a different way, knowledge is respected in a different way. Here it's sort of ... What I don't like is when people shout at old people, as though they're all deaf. [VERY LOUDLY] 'How are you dear? Are you all right?' It's just really ... I've always felt embarrassed by that thing of ... I mean some people love it. And I think a lot of old people play old, because that's the way they're supposed to be. You always play the role that's required of you, you know.

Are you worried at all yourself about age? Is there any aspect of it that bothers you, apart from the way you'll be treated?

Well, I don't want to get gaga and sort of Alzheimic and lose my brain. But then if I was I'd probably be jolly happy, like a sort of little vegetable: ho, ho, ho. But I don't think I'd like that. And I don't want to cause anyone ... I think this is one of the big problems too. I don't want to have to cause people a lot of problem[s] of having to look after me if I was completely incapacitated. But everyone knows that incapacitation is one of the most powerful situations in the world. Everyone has to sort of ... I don't want that either. So I suppose we're all in for it. It doesn't matter who we are. Unless we get dead early. We've all got to go through that thing of having to cope with the fact that we are incapacitated and getting more incapacitated as we get older.

Does death hold any fears for you?

No. I actually I heard the Dalai Lama the other day say, 'What a very interesting adventure. It'll be such a good adventure dear'. But I mean I don't quite see it that way, but I do think ... I do not think that I ... unless ... I wouldn't like to have a very painful death, but I don't think anyone would. I mean, I just wouldn't like to be in that situation of ... and I think everyone feels like that. I don't think there's any one of us that would say, 'Oh yes, I want to go through a long drawn out suffering'. No, I think it's a very interesting thing that we are becoming much more energised for much more of our lives, and I think that's ... I mean I think our lives are divided into three things anyway. We do honestly have a time when we really don't know what's happening, and we're all ... [GESTURES INCOHERENCE], then we do have a voyage of discovery. And then I think the interesting part, which I think I'm in now, is a sort of consolidation of being able to somehow be much more creative as far as innovating things and bringing things out, and sort of living your own vision. Because it's there, it's come into focus much more.

[end of tape]

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