FILM: Life is about jam today

At 53, Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston is riding high in Hollywood. ELAINE LIPWORTH hears why times are good
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Anjelica Huston grew up immersed in movies, as the daughter of the legendary director John Huston. She's an accomplished, Oscar-winning actress, and you'd think, at 53, she might be a little complacent about her profession. But chatting about her latest film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, she's bursting with enthusiasm about the project - and her role. She plays Bill Murray's wife, Eleanor Zissou, in Wes Anderson's bizarrely compelling story about a quixotic seafaring adventure. It's her second film for the idiosyncratic film-maker, and it's clear that Huston is a fan.

"I love to work with him, he's challenging and exacting and has his own particular sensibility. When I go to movies I love to forget about my own life. I love to go to a movie theatre and enter into another world. Going to work with Wes is like entering another world, it's always a little off to the side of reality. I'm apt to be an emotional actress and pretty instinctual, and Wes tempers that, he's very precise and has a clear idea of what he wants. I'd do practically any thing for Wes, I'd walk the plank for him."

Bill Murray says The Life Aquatic was the most difficult and gruelling film he's ever made, because of icy weather on location off the coast of Italy - they were shooting during a particularly bitter winter. But Huston's character spends much of her time languishing in a beautiful villa. "It was hard for Bill because he was out at sea in a Speedo most of the time, it was much more luxurious for me," she smiles. Working with the notoriously moody star was not a problem, she says. "He's brilliant, and I have a huge crush on him."

Another reason she enjoyed making the movie was that her husband was on the set with her. Mexican sculptor Robert Graham wangled his way into the production, and ended up with a cameo as a Venezuelan general. "Bob was outraged that he didn't get a close-up," says Huston, eyes twinkling. "He'll be keeping his day job. But if he does get another film role with me he'll have to have his own trailer, because he littered mine with his cigars and clothes."

The film revolves around Steve Zissou, a self-centred oceanographer and documentary film-maker. Once admired and successful, he's now embittered and broke. He embarks on a quest to track down the mythical "Jaguar Shark" that killed his best friend and colleague. His wife is strong, beautiful, and brainy, but the marriage is on the rocks, and Steve Zissou is a womaniser.

"Eleanor has a great love for her husband but he's obviously a loose cannon," says Huston. "She feels he's highly irresponsible, but they have an extraordinary commonality in the sea, which is an incredible shared passion. The infidelity is something that has obviously caused a rift in the marriage. He's a flirt, he's a jerk. She loves him."

"A loose cannon, a jerk, a flirt" - it wouldn't have been surprising to hear the actress describe her former partner, Jack Nicholson, in the same way. They were together for 17 years. His philandering was legendary, and he preferred her to stay at home and didn't encourage her acting career. She makes no secret of her pain. "It was difficult because when I was living with Jack, the phone rang for Jack. And if you're an aspiring actor living with a much more famous one, that can be a bit hard," she says. Is she still friends with her ex? "It's fine, we say hello. We don't hang out together but it's fine."

The relationship ended 15 years ago but the actress is used to the inevitable Nicholson questions. She may not be thrilled to talk about her ex - yet again - but she's unfailingly polite and doesn't avoid the subject. "There are moments when, you know, you can live without the public humiliation, it's very hard," she says. "But I think when those things happen, you have to realise that you're not alone with all that, it happens to all of us. The fact that one is visible in a way is useful, because you know you can give counsel to others, your behaviour and the guidelines of your life can affect someone else. Stuff happens whether or not you are born into a life of privilege."

The actress has certainly led a privileged life. But it can't have been easy growing up with John Huston, another brilliant, demanding and domineering man. Often away filming during her childhood, he was known as tempestuous and hard-drinking. Her mother, a dancer called Rikki Soma, was Huston's third wife. She died in a car crash when her daughter was just 17.

"I do miss my parents still, but the baseline is that we are all born, we all grow up and at some point our parents pass. You can't feel too isolated because that's the life cycle. I am quite a spiritual person. I'm not about lighting a candle or saying prayers, but I'm not afraid of looking up and asking for help."

This year looks busy for the actress, with several big films coming out, including Art School Confidential with John Malkovich and Jim Broadbent, and Every Word is True, a drama about the writer Truman Capote with Kevin Kline. There are also tentative plans for an autobiography, sometime in the future. She's turned down offers in the past but is currently inspired by reading Bob Dylan's memoirs. "I'm a huge Dylan fan and I think he's one of the - if not the - seminal artist of the 20th century." If she does decide to tell her own story, it's likely to be a riveting tale. "I have been taking notes occasionally and I keep a diary. But perhaps I'll wait till I've forgotten everything," she jokes.

Born in Los Angeles, Huston soon moved to Ireland with her family. Her father bought a castle in Galway to escape the craziness of Tinseltown. She then moved to London when she was 10, and was 18 when her father cast her in his 1969 film A Walk With Love and Death. It was disastrous. "I was reluctant about doing it, because of the nepotism, and we had a hard time on that movie. He was an authoritarian with me, particularly at that age." Her confidence rocked, Huston spent the next few years modelling before studying acting seriously. She returned to California to pursue a movie career, and by the time she worked with her father again, she had won a best supporting actress Oscar for Prizzi's Honor (1985). "We had a great time together, we were very connected and my father, I think, was in a more forgiving, accepting mood than he had been before," she says.

Despite a complicated relationship, Huston says her own work is inevitably influenced by her father and her upbringing. "I grew up with his films; I must've seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre about 150 times. I grew up in the middle of the Irish countryside and we didn't have TV. So all my earliest recollections were from the projector - my father's films. I feel I've learnt a lot from him."

In her own career, Huston has played a wide range of formidable roles. She starred in John Huston's final film, The Dead, an adaptation of a James Joyce story, in 1987. She received another Oscar nomination for Enemies: A Love Story (1989) and again the following year for The Grifters. As a director, she made Bastard Out of Carolina in 1996, then the Irish film Agnes Browne in 1999. There have been plenty of family films too: she was deliciously evil in Roald Dahl's The Witches, she played Morticia Addams in The Addams Family movies and starred in Daddy Day Care in 2003.

Despite an obvious gift for entertaining children, she has never had any of her own. "No, I'm not sad that I haven't had any children, because there are a lot in my family," she says. "My brother's children in their early twenties are great. Both my brothers and my sister had babies two years ago, so there's a whole new batch and I get to be `auntie' and have a great time with them and it's lovely. I can have all the advantages and not necessarily be the parent figure, cracking the whip."

If there are any regrets, Huston doesn't dwell on them. "I do feel blessed and privileged," she says. She's a fundraiser for countless charities and has spent the first weeks of the new year devoted to tsunami relief. "I think we are so spoilt in America and I don't think money makes you happy. I think comfort and love and knowing that you have a place in the world makes you peaceful."

Her contentment extends to the way she looks at 53 in an industry obsessed with youth. And so far she hasn't succumbed to cosmetic surgery. "There might be a time when I would want to do the big pin-up, the big lift, but certainly not now. I didn't feel so good about my face or my body as an adolescent. I was in London and spent a lot of time dealing with the fact that I didn't look like Twiggy. But then you get older and your features grow into themselves. Decay will happen to the body; it's a matter of whether you want to go to war with that and have surgery. I think you wind up looking like `a thing' rather than a younger version of yourself.

"You have to live a good life, try to be honest with the world and yourself. Remember to smile and things will be OK. In my time off I barely look in the mirror. The way I look is not something that is paramount in my life. I'm more interested in riding my horses, walking the dogs, gardening and being with my family."

Huston and her husband appear to have an idyllic lifestyle, with frequent trips to Mexico and Ireland, and months at home outside Los Angeles. She describes herself as a "typically Cancerian homebody", and claims to enjoy "doing housework, cleaning, gardening and making jam" as much as making movies. She's seriously considering starting her own line of gourmet preserves, donating the proceeds to charity, Paul Newman style.

"I just give jars to friends every year as gifts, and two years ago I had so much fruit from the garden I thought, `Hmm, maybe I should package it.' I could do it as a home industry. It would be very hard work." She pauses. "But I do like the idea of `Anjelica's Jams and Jellies'."

`The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou' opens on 18 February