Mia Farrow: 'My faith helps me through hard times'

Although a devout Catholic, Mia Farrow is happy to face evil in her latest film, she tells Gill Pringle
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The Independent Culture

Mia Farrow tugs at the gold chain around her neck, revealing a pendant of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. "My father gave it to me when I was 12 and I never take it off. He died five years later," she says.

"If you're brought up a Catholic and you've had 13 years of convent education with nuns, there's no way you ever get out from under that. I've accepted that fact about myself so there are certain things - like my lost saint - that sometimes are not so lost."

And if ever anyone was in need of help, perpetual or otherwise, it was Farrow 14 years ago when faced with the devastating news that her then partner Woody Allen had fallen for her teenage adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, who would later become his wife.

"My faith has helped me through many difficult times. It made me understand what it is by that which cannot be taken away. The essential self that is yours and yours alone cannot be taken away. Only you can give it up.

"That said, things can be taken away and that can be painful. Loss is painful," concedes Farrow. Asked whether she has since forgiven Allen, she says: "In an instant. I can't carry any of that. That's too heavy for me. It really isn't up to me to forgive or not forgive, is it?" Remarkably, in such a small city as Manhattan, Farrow says that she hasn't once run into Allen - or his bride - since their rancorous split. "It's incredible, I know. But I've had the good fortune and that has never happened to me. No, thank God."

Just a few years ago, Farrow, 61, was quoted as expressing a desire for reconciliation with her daughter, now Soon-Yi Allen. Does she still feel the same way? "Well, I've got over it, you know. You can get over almost anything. You just can't go on mourning forever, and so I've moved on. It's been a long time now. And I really don't think of her as my daughter any more. I can't. She isn't. She's estranged - and strange."

Farrow was 21 when she married Frank Sinatra, a relationship that would last less than two years before she went on to marry the conductor André Previn; she later became involved with Allen in the early 1980s.The Allen-Farrow union produced a legacy of some 13 films including Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig, and though their love affair would ultimately end in tears, it also resulted in the source of much happiness for Farrow today in the shape of the couple's biological son, already a college graduate at the age of 17. Named Satchel at birth, the boy later became known as Seamus, although he presently goes by the name of Ronan.

"His proper name is Seamus Ronan Farrow, but he changed it to Ronan Seamus because everyone in America would mispronounce it and call him Seemus," explains the actress, herself no stranger to random name changes having entered the world as Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow. "Ronan's now at Yale Law School. Sadly he's never been with his contemporaries because he went to college at 11. And then graduated top of his class. He was way younger than everyone and now at law school he'll still be the youngest by far.

"He's a Unicef youth spokesperson and was one of the founding members of the Genocide Intervention Fund, who are students working hard to bring attention to Darfur, and have raised $500,000 to provide guards to women in the camps from the rapes. Ronan and I went to Darfur last year and on 10 June we plan on going there again."

Mother to 14 children - 10 of whom are adopted and many of those with disabilities - Farrow was reaching out to orphans and spotlighting human rights atrocities before Angelina Jolie was even born. "I don't know if Angelina even knows my name. But I do think she's absolutely lovely and her good heart is there for all to see. If we met, I don't know what I'd say to her except maybe: 'God speed. Be safe. Be happy! Bless you and your kids.'"

The veteran actress bridles at suggestions that many of Hollywood's young players may be jumping on the humanitarian bandwagon for some kind of personal gain. "These people don't need additional focus or respect. I'm not that cynical at all. Angelina has given not only her time, but her money to assist people who need it most. In the past, entertainers have usually led selfish and egotistic lives so I like it when I see people like Angelina trying so hard. I think she has raised some awareness and that she has an extremely good heart," says Farrow, whose early acts of compassion - adopting her first orphan from Vietnam as a protest against the war more than 30 years ago - were viewed as the actions of a liberal loony rather than someone with a big heart.

"Having such a large family can be challenging. I won't deny that. But they're just great kids so you just deal with everything. There's very few things in my life that I regret. If I could change anything, maybe I wish I had learnt and done certain things earlier. I would have liked to have continued in school longer. I would have been interested in living in Africa and perhaps trained as a paediatrician."

Top of her list of things she'd do differently is her decision to turn down the role of Mattie Ross in the 1969 John Wayne classic True Grit. "Worst career choice I ever made," she says, laughing. Career-wise, things seem to be going better today, as Farrow's return to the New York stage last year in the off-Broadway play Fran's Bed was hailed as a triumph.

And what of the men in her life? Does she regret any of her three marriages? "Maybe two-thirds of them I wouldn't change. They were very good and we remained good friends. You figure it out," she says. She has found comfort in recent years in her friendship with the author Philip Roth. "I know it's a cliché but we're good friends," she says. "He's a neighbour and a friend and he's been a good friend. Whether I'll marry again, I don't know."

Farrow was just 23 years old when she met with a chorus of religious disapproval after starring as the unwitting mother of Satan in Roman Polanski's horror classic Rosemary's Baby. The actress was never remotely apologetic about taking on the role, just as she is equally unapologetic of her part in today's remake of the 1976 film The Omen, which originally starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. "It's just a movie at the end of the day, although that's not to say that evil doesn't exist. I see evil as the twin of good and I believe we only have to look as far as Darfur to see that in every human being there is the capacity for terrible destruction. Call it evil if you like. Also in every human being there is the capacity for altruism and great goodness. I think it's the role of parents and educators to say that evil is not some cartoon outside yourself. It's in your own make-up and in the human heart. Know it, identify it, and weed it out every single day. That was a metaphor given to me by my son Ronan at a young age. He said it's difficult to be a human being and you have to weed every single day. I thought that was perfect.

"At home I expose my children to all faiths. I put a different book on the stairs leading up to our bedrooms - books on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and so on. I want them to get a taste of different religions and see how different people approach things and what their motivation is. But, for me, The Omen is not about religion. It's just another role and it's been a lot of fun. Besides, my mother never told me not to do roles that involved evil or Satan," says Farrow, laughing.

Farrow's somewhat altered appearance today has earned her cruel mentions on websites such as awfulplasticsurgery.com, but in person she simply glows. Blue eyes glitter, pale skin is almost transparent, while soft blond wavy hair flecked with grey hangs in curls about her shoulders. Later, she asks my opinion on whether she should cut her hair shorter before The Omen's US premiere. It's hard to make any suggestions to an actress whose pixie-cut once launched a worldwide fashion.

With a family ranging in age from 36 to 12 years old - only one child remains at home - Farrow is excited at the prospect of resuming her acting career, and is starring in a further two movies this year, Luc Besson's Arthur and the Minimoys and in the slacker comedy Fast Track opposite Zach Braff and Amanda Peet. "It's been an exciting year because everybody was finally at an age where I could actually leave and go to France for two months and make a movie, which is something I really couldn't have done a year or two ago. So I'm just thinking how lucky I am.

"And I can't view the empty nest as necessarily a bad thing. I see it as an opportunity to catch up on a lot of things, and we'll see what comes. I mean, that's the thing about my profession, I just can't speak intelligently about what might happen because I could be doing a play, I could be doing a film, I could be staying home and thinking 'I'll never work again...' I may start writing something again, you know, or Unicef could ask me to go somewhere. I'll just have to see..."

'The Omen' opens on 6 June