Saint Julie

It took Away From Her, a film about a woman losing her memory, to bring back Julie Christie—an actress we’ve never forgotten
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Photograph by Jill Greenberg

 

The sight of Julie Christie these last ten years is a joy that has been largely limited to her neighbors in rural Wales—aging hippies and farming couples who, like the star of Doctor Zhivago and Shampoo, prefer some distance from today’s world. Christie’s sporadic, too-brief returns to the screen—as the mother of Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy, say, or the landlady of the Three Broomsticks Pub in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—usually serve as fair indicators that she is looking to earn a few pounds. “The pot runs dry,” the 66-year-old actress says, “so you have to keep churning.”

Her latest film, Away from Her, is an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story about a professor’s wife overtaken by Alzheimer’s. Christie’s portrait of Fiona—a woman slowly melting away from the pain of memory and the grasp of a husband who’s loved and betrayed her—is devastating in its intimacy and restraint and has earned her Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Association.

Promoting the movie has recently brought Christie back to Los Angeles, where she lived, fitfully, during the era of raging bulls and easy riders. Over noontime tea at Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar, the blue eyes that do much of her communicating obscured by rose-colored glasses, Christie talks about her latest role, acting and ageism, and how Britain lost her heart.

You did our cover shoot with Philip Seymour Hoffman yesterday, right?  
What a delightful person. I went and saw his film The Savages, which is a good film, an excellent film, made by a woman. And I mention that because, you know, there just aren’t too many. I really enjoyed it.

The last movie you starred in was Afterglow, and that was ten years ago. How did Sarah Polley, who directed Away from Her, persuade you to star in a movie now?  
By nagging me. First of all, start off by being a director I want to work with. I wouldn’t have known that about Sarah, because I’d never seen a film she had made, but she happened to be one of my new best friends, and that says a lot, you know. That means someone you love and have fun with and tease and share ideas with, all those lovely things. By saying no, by not wanting to do it…

You didn’t want to make Away from Her?
No, I didn’t want to make any film. I did it because I didn’t want to risk losing the intensity of that friendship by not participating with her on her first exploration into filmmaking—feature filmmaking, she’s made small films. I thought, “Oh, God, if somebody else is going to do this, this is going to be awful. They’re going to get all the kudos for this part, and they might become better friends of hers than I am.”

So for aspiring directors, first they have to become one of your new best friends, and then they have to nag you persistently.  
No, no, no. But if I’ve seen their work and I know it’s absolutely fantastic, then the nagging persistently is bound to eventually pay off .

So you have no regrets about being pestered into doing this film?
Oh no, it was rare in that it was truly wonderful, and I was with a pal working on it—with two pals, actually, because I also have a wonderful acting coach, a wonderful Australian woman named Lindy Davies.

You have an acting coach?
You mean at my age? You can’t stop learning.

It just seems like you mastered the craft a while ago.
Oh, you always have to watch out for inauthenticity. We’re up to here with inauthenticity. We’re surrounded by it everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, and I’m no more immune to it than anyone else.

You’ve made so many classic movies—Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Don’t Look Now, Shampoo. How do you avoid making bad ones?
I’ve made bad movies, believe me.

Percentage wise, though, you’ve done well.
I’m only interested in directors. I’m almost not interested in material, but the director is the material. I’m really sort of an old-fashioned auteur type of person, and directors make the finished product, and it’s the finished product that is the work of art.

The theme of regret is such a mainstay in your movies, including the new one.
Yeah, I know. Nick Roeg always said that there was a very wry, wistful quality I had, so that makes sense. “Oh, this person is wry and wistful, so we can bring that in even if she’s playing a bitch.” Am I wry? Am I wistful? I don’t know. Am I? It has a lot to do with something I convey and a lot to do with what directors see me conveying.

So you don’t look at yourself and say, “I’m a big pile of regrets”? 
I don’t see myself as a person possessed of regrets. I regret deeply the state the world is in. But maybe in any world I had ever been born into, I would regret the state it was in, because we’re such fallible human beings.

Do you ever feel an urge to act?
There are financial reasons right now for doing little, tiny parts like Troy. I live in Wales, in the most wonderful, idyllic situation—I mean, certainly the inside of the head is the only place that’s idyllic. But yes, at the same time I do have to hop out of it every now and then. But as I say, I’m always richly rewarded. A day on an exquisite beach in Malta with Brad Pitt is certainly not taxing. It’s not hard work.

But it’s not your life’s passion, either.
Well, the part was hardly my life’s passion.

I mean acting in general.
You’re quite right. No, not even with a great big whopping thing—it’s not my life.

Because you’d do it more often if it were, right?
I would, because life should be fun.

If you look at actresses in the ’30s and ’40s, they had really long careers and interesting parts. Bette Davis was being offered parts well past age 50.
When they age, an awful lot of actors don’t want to do parts that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did, those Grand Guignol types of parts. The parts that they did that were interesting were when they were young, when they had power. They became deprived of their power because of their age and played parts of fairly deranged people who looked much older than they actually were. Men have had better luck on that score, but it’s not as if Paul Newman is working in everything.

British actresses tend to do better later in their careers than American actresses.
Well, some do. But America is worse in terms of recognizing the humanity and passion and competence and skills of older women.

So you were in London in the ’60s and L.A. in the ’70s. How did one compare against the other, creatively?
I thought it was totally provincial here, dreadfully uncool and square—those were the words—and basically very bourgeois. But there was this streak of people, the Dennis Hoppers and the Jack Nicholsons and the Warren Beattys, and some marvelous women who were in much smaller roles, despite all the talk of radicalism and revolution.

It wasn’t the ideal climate for an actress, then, or a true progressive.  
I was very glad for America that they were going into their own playground rather than their parents’ playground. That’s great, but the playground was not a very developmental playground. I found it extremely male and extremely egotistical in terms of melodramatics and machismo, whereas what was happening in Germany, Venezuela, France, was contemplative, looking at politics—real politics, not the politics of whether my daddy slapped me or allowed me to do this, that, or the other. Apocalypse Now was something that actually looked at real politics, and anything that Hal Ashby did. There were exceptions, but on the whole they were mostly boys making a lot of noise.

Did you talk to Warren Beatty, who was your boyfriend at the time, about that and say, “You’re part of this process”?
Oh, I hadn’t a clue at the time. I’m telling you now what I think.

How could you not have had a clue? You knew enough to be repulsed.
I was repulsed by the waste and the machismo. The American male machismo was very different from what was happening in Britain at the time, which was much more a New York Dolls kind of thing. What’s the word? Androgynous. I had no idea, until afterwards, as I don’t of most things, what was lying behind it historically. Now I’m much, much, much better informed about what is happening. But at that point I was unaware of the secrets of life.

When were those secrets unlocked for you?
When I went back to England, I began to be part of movements. You suddenly leave someone, and you realize the value of what you’ve learned from being with them. I’m not talking about Warren now—I’m talking about other people as well.

You did learn something from Warren, right?  
I learned a lot from him, but people always pin what I say about my American experience down to Warren. Poor man bears the brunt of everything I say. I was aware of politics enough to know that I should have been on front lines and I wasn’t, but I loathe public attention. I just loathe it, loathe it, loathe it. My whole nature sort of leaps up against it. That’s how I am, that’s what I’m made like.

Gosh, very early on you must have thought, “I entered the exact wrong business.”  
No, I realized it very late on, so I struggled with it. Now I realize it—that’s why I’m sort of not doing films and living in a farmhouse in Wales.

When exactly did you leave L.A.?  
Quite a long time after Shampoo. I’m thinking in my head, “What was the film?” and “What was the boyfriend?” That’s how I’m doing my dating.

That’s better than carbon dating.  
Yeah. And then my partner got a job as a West Coast correspondent for his paper for several years, so we came to live out here. As much as Los Angeles has improved, I don’t want to live here. The car situation is just a disgusting way to live. I’d always loved Ojai. I thought it was a magical place, and it responded to a certain spiritual search that I have always been partaking of. But I always moved back to Britain, because my heart belonged then to Britain. It doesn’t anymore.

How did Britain lose your heart? 
It became America.

With Tony Blair or before Tony Blair?
Margaret Thatcher.

They lost you a long time ago, then.
I’m wistful and regretful about that.

In Afterglow your character watches a lot of her old movies. When was the last time you saw Doctor Zhivago? 
One New Year’s Eve—it’s always trotted out at New Year’s Eve—six or seven years ago. Two friends of mine had never seen it, and we watched and we got so bored that we had to turn it off . It went on and on and on and on. I think people started yawning.

Well, it’s good to yawn at yourself, I guess.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful. Without that film I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I’m sort of objectively incredibly grateful to everything about that film, it’s just that—

Subjectively?
Subjectively, I tend to fall asleep a little bit when I watch it.

In a way, your performances are probably so much clearer in audiences’ minds than recollections from their own lives, because they can refer to them and see them again. Do you think that adds to the impact of your performance in Away from Her?
It doesn’t add to my vision. I can never tell. I don’t understand people and films anyway, but I certainly don’t understand people and me in films.

Really? 
On the whole, no. I’m not being falsely modest. I have found it very puzzling. It’s something that happens between a particular kind of human being and a camera, and that’s something none of us can define. However, watching Away from Her—I’ve had to watch it three times, because this is the first time I’ve got on the bandwagon for something—I very much like myself, and I would very much like myself if I didn’t know myself, if I weren’t myself. And that happens very rarely.

So is this the last movie you’re making until 2017?
It really depends on what’s out there.

What if Sarah calls and says, “I’ve got this great role for you”?
If there was someone like Sarah, I can tell you I’d jump at it. I hope that the film industry isn’t in such a shocking state that it’s only the Sarahs who are interested in working with older women.

So are you glad to be packing your bags again and going home?
No, I love it. I love it. How can anyone complain? This is like paradise. But it will be nice to see my friends and get back to a sort of really focused and ordinary, boring life, not lived in a hotel with a magical view outside the window.