Mistress of the disturbed

Theresa Russell has cornered the market in 'twisted sisters': prostitutes, serial killers, incestuous housewives, suicides. But, she says, 'I'm a Valley Girl, okay? Like, todally'
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The actress Theresa Russell lives in a tall terraced house in Notting Hill, London. In the knocked-through front room the chairs are deep and comfy, the paintings and ornaments are at Victorian densities, and at your ankles is a small, yappy, wire-haired dog called Gus. The scene is archetypally English, unlike Russell who remains, despite 12 years in London, archetypally Californian - although apparently there is some confusion about this where she comes from. "When I go to America now, people think I'm English. I mean, I'm a Valley Girl, OK? Like, todally. My first boyfriend was a surfer. What do I have to do?"

Theresa Russell is 37. The only place you will get to see her in her role as a mother of two in an ankle-length skirt and a cardy is in this house. In the cinema, the cosy, mumsy parts tend to go elsewhere. She once said she thought she had just about cornered the market in "twisted sisters" - prostitutes, serial killers, incestuous housewives, suicides. Frequently, Russell has found these roles in movies made by her most loyal patron, her husband, an Englishman, Nicolas Roeg: in Bad Timing and Eureka!, Track 29. Sometimes she has found them in movies made by others: in Bob Rafelson's Black Widow, in Ken Russell's Whore (screened on Channel Four this Saturday). It may be significant that, as a child, Russell's favourite character in The Jungle Book was the snake.

Her latest role, in a film called Cold Heaven, is of a piece; she plays a woman tortured by guilt following the death in a boating accident of the husband she was betraying. There's a gibbering, whispered voice-over and a lot of anxiety. We say her latest role, but the film was in fact made four years ago by Roeg, who struggled for three years to get someone to distribute it in Britain. The film now creeps out rather bashfully on video. Russell says: "Nicko has a rather philosophical idea about it and onward is the cry," but she admits to the frustration, his and hers.

As company, Russell is both animated and self-possessed, at once loud and cool. She has an abrasive laugh through which she continues to talk. But it's true in life as on the screen that smiles and even laughter don't seem to alter the essential composure of her face. One critic wondered, callously, if she wasn't "comatose". As the writer David Thomson more thoughtfully pointed out, it is the way her openness combines with something unprofessional and unyielding which is central to her presence: "She sometimes seems like a woman encountered at a Greyhound station and inveigled before the camera - unready, ungiving, suspicious, yet definitely there; more than an actress."

The notion that Russell was drafted at random from a bus-stop is actually close to the truth about the way she became a film star. She grew up in Los Angeles, the eldest of four children in a family which she calls "dysfunctional". Her father left when Russell was six and went to Mexico. Meanwhile, her mother married a man whom Russell describes at various points in our conversation as "hideous", "incapable" and "an asshole". Her mother's decision to have two children with this man is something Russell says she still cannot understand. "How could someone be so needy that they will allow that to happen?" She had developed an interest in recreational drugs by the age of 13 and had probably dated that surfer by then, too. And then one day she was spotted on the street by a photographer. (One version of the story has it that it was a supermarket and she was shoplifting, but this is not the version Russell tells me.)

Russell, because she was "streetwise" and thought the photographer probably only wanted to take advantage of her, suggested he come home first and meet her mother. In fact, his motives were straight and he took some pictures of her, as did, around this time, a fashion photographer who was a friend of Russell's mother.

"I ended up having what I realise now was a long, almost like a Lolita/ Humbert Humbert relationship with him - without the sex. He was madly in love with me and took pictures of me a lot. He would come round and we would go off and shoot pictures up in the mountains."

What the still camera saw in her - the impossibly bright eyes, the folds at the corners of her mouth, the cheekbones - the movie camera would see too, though up to this point an actress was the last thing Russell had wanted to be. "Because of being in Hollywood's backyard, there were little girls when I was growing up going, 'Oooh, I just did a commercial!' and I just wanted to slap them, they were so pretentious and horrible. God, I never wanted to be an actress because they were such little snots."

She left school in the 10th grade. "Not having been to university, I have this romantic idea about how nice it would have been to sit around in coffee bars, talking about communism and feasting off all this knowledge." Instead, she got herself enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, the home of "method" acting, intense character immersion and, as Russell puts it, "a lot of shit as well". Russell does a neat impression of method acting at its self-involved worst, a mournful groan: "I lost my dog. My dog is dead." She borrows its terms, though, when she says that Strasberg and the method "released" her.

She was probably confirmed in her partial disdain for method acting by the director Elia Kazan, who cast her in her first major movie, The Last Tycoon, starring Robert de Niro. "When de Niro was being indulgent, Kazan didn't say anything, but when I was, he got mad at me. 'That method thing doesn't mean you can be so self-indulgent. All that mumbling, mumbling - I hate it!'"

The Last Tycoon got her noticed and, immediately afterwards, the director and producer Sam Spiegel wanted to sign Russell to a four-year production contract. It was typical of her that she was unimpressed by what was dangled in front of her: "I just thought, 'Oh really? And then I have to, like, go to your yacht? And I gotta do this and that and the other thing in order for me to get to do another picture? Forget that.' I went off and got a lawyer is what happened." Spiegel told her, old style, that she would never work in that town again. "All that crap," she says. "My first taste."

She first met Nicolas Roeg (celebrated for his work in the late Sixties and Seventies, notably Performance, Walkabout and Don't Look Now), in the Sunset Marquis in LA, where she had gone to audition for the role of Marlena in Bad Timing, a taxing part which would call for her to act her way through a tracheotomy and seduce Art Garfunkel in a stairwell. (This was to be her breakthrough, and remains, justifiably, the role she is most proud of, though between takes, she would sit with Garfunkel and worry, both of them petrified that the film was beyond them.)

"My agent said I shouldn't do it. I said, 'Screw you'. I had just got interested in foreign films and I had seen The Man Who Fell to Earth [directed by Roeg]. And when I walked in, it was an immediate thing. I knew my life was going to be different after meeting this man. None of the affair happened until way into shooting. But I knew something incredible was going to happen."

She had been living with a primal therapist - "one of the most fucked- up people I have ever met," she says cheerfully - whom she had run into at 16 and who was 12 years older than her. She turned 22 during the filming of Bad Timing; Roeg was 30 years her senior and married with four children. He got a divorce.

Since then, their relationship has held steady, though not without effort. "Marriage is the most difficult thing I've ever done," she says. "So much of our lives is domestic, bourgeois - people would laugh if they could hear us. You get entrenched with that, and then when you go off and do a film together, the partnership takes on another connotation." There was some tabloid fuss when she was reportedly seen necking with David Hayman, the director of - and this seemed too good to be true - the 1994 television drama A Woman's Guide to Adultery, in which Russell starred with Amanda Donohoe and Sean Bean. But it soon went away.

They have two sons - Statten, who is 12, and Maximilian, who is nine. Russell keeps a house in LA and takes them out there for holidays, camping, trekking and fishing in the High Sierra. Roeg stays at home. When they were small, she continued to work and took them on sets. "I breastfed both of them. In the trailer I was, like, 'I'll be there in five more minutes. Just let me switch sides.'" But she has turned down roles for them, recognising, she says, where her greater interest lies and realising that "their needs were so far more important than anything I could imagine for myself".

"I have friends my age who bought totally into that major feminist thing of being totally financially independent at the risk of not having any relationship, not having children, not having anything. They look at me and I've got a son this big and they're looking at having a teeny baby. Or looking for a man to have one with."

Our conversation ends around 4pm, when Maximilian comes home in what is almost a parody school uniform - grey jumper and grey shorts and long grey socks. Gus has an extended yapping fit. "Where's my smooch?" Russell wants to know and Maximilian promptly skids across the floor and leans into her armchair. Russell had said that at some point today she was going to have to make up her mind whether to do some American television thing or to take her children on holiday to Australia instead. Odds look to be favouring the holiday.

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