Elizabeth McGovern, slender and every inch the movie star, sips her 90p peppermint tea. All the smart coffee shops were crammed, so an ice-cream parlour, with its high-backed benches, seems a haven of peace and discretion. No one else can see her, but that clear Californian voice and her affectionate, unassuming references to Academy Awards and dinners with James Cagney quickly still every other conversation in the room.
As a girl, McGovern had no aspirations to be in show business, even when her family moved close to Hollywood. "But I went to an artsy fartsy high school and was spotted by an agent." At 18, she hit the jackpot and was cast in Robert Redford's directing debut, Ordinary People. Described by The New York Times as "a sweet newcomer", McGovern went on to study at the Julliard School in New York, before being tempted back to film. Ragtime, directed by the great Milos Foreman, brought her an Academy Award (and dinners with her elderly co-star James Cagney), and she played opposite Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone's imperious Once Upon a Time in America.
That was almost 25 years ago, when Hollywood was a lot more fun. "I was incredibly lucky to work with highly intelligent directors who really cared enormously for actors and were very supportive. Nowadays, Hollywood seems more serious; so much focuses on the business side of things." I wondered if this meant her relationship with Hollywood was over. "I wouldn't say that that accurately describes my feelings," she replies. "I would jump at the chance of a really interesting project."
Based in west London, McGovern, her husband, the producer Simon Curtis, and their two daughters divide their time between Britain and Hollywood. She can chose her roles - there's no steely pursuit of stardom, only the desire to work in the company of artists she respects.
McGovern's latest film is The Truth, a low-budget, independent film directed by George Milton from a script he co-wrote with Mark Tilton. "They borrowed money from friends to make this film," McGovern says, admiringly.
For The Truth, shot in the Cairngorms, McGovern is cast as a Californian therapist, the cold, manipulative Donna Shuck. A group of young men and women have come to her isolated Scottish clinic with a variety of emotional limitations that they hope to overcome with her system, "Seven Adventures in Truth".
Donna's rules are simple; tell only the truth and remain loyal to the group. The truth, of course is subjective and in the film, it becomes a plaything, the focus of a bizarre and increasingly sinister game. Donna remains inscrutable and outwardly benevolent, even when a female participant admits eating the remains of a lover following a sado-masochistic ritual.
When a client is found dead, Donna flirts briefly with real emotion, but quickly submerges it in a moment of sublime mumbo-jumbo: "You mustn't think this is just a murder; it's a cry for help!" The ensemble enters a menacing group psychosis, which lasts throughout the film.
Her performance is masterly. "Having grown up in Hollywood and being in show business all my adult life, I've seen how these pseudo-psychoanalytic gurus make decisions that affect hundreds of people. I guess Donna is an amalgam of a number of such people I have come across."
And as long as her clients' neuroses are concocted, Donna has the language to guide them to a potentially happier place. But when the problems are real, as with the character who's witnessed the brutal murder of their relatives in a war zone, Donna's guidance is less sure, her actions motivated by the will to control, notcure.
McGovern is fascinated by the film's underlying metaphor. "It's a parable for how the world works, the fact the West, with all its neuroses, is victimising the Third World and never taking responsibility. The film works at that level."
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