Theresa Russell: Hollywood's darkest star

Femmes fatales, husband-killers, call-girls - nobody does wicked better than Theresa Russell. But it's her latest role, as a neo-Nazi, that comes closest to pure evil, she tells Andrew Gumbel
Click to follow

First off, a confession. For much of my adult life I have had this jagged, haunting memory of Theresa Russell that I can't shake. I think of her, and I think of the tragically gorgeous young woman with piercing green eyes stepping into a party in Cold War Vienna, Tom Waits in the background singing "Invitation to the Blues". I think of her getting drunk, getting vulgar, flinging herself at her obsessively jealous lover, as much out of addled desperation as residual passion. I see her overdosed on pills, lying helplessly in hospital as doctors rip open her throat in a frantic effort to save her life. I see her, stifled by the brooding watchfulness of the men around her, charging down the path to self-destruction even as she becomes the victim of an unspeakable crime.

People have had a lot of things to say down the years about Bad Timing, the Nic Roeg film that has stuck with me so obstinately. Its own distributor, the Rank Organisation, described it as a "sick film" and all but condemned it to oblivion at the box office. It is now remembered as the movie that made Russell's name and inaugurated a long personal and professional relationship with her director. But it also came close to sinking both of them because of the stigma attached to its harrowing depiction of human passions at their darkest. I saw it only once, and on telly at that, but the raw emotional intensity of her performance blew me away.

All of which may be a roundabout way of saying that Theresa Russell is not just an actress of striking physical beauty, self-evident though that might be from those extraordinary eyes, her bewitching smile and silken blonde hair. Hers is a beauty that hints at darker, more mysterious things lurking beneath the surface. And that, in turn, makes the prospect of meeting her more than a little daunting.

Driving to her house last week, up the winding canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills north of Sunset Boulevard, I realised that I had no concrete idea what to expect. I followed her more or less faithfully through the Eighties and early Nineties, from the various tormented characters she performed under Roeg's direction – remember the Southern woman-child playing Oedipal games with Gary Oldman in Track 29? – to the slick serial husband-killer of Black Widow, her biggest commercial success, to the title role in Whore, Ken Russell's overwrought stab at backstreet poetry. She was good in all of them; not as good, perhaps, as she was in Bad Timing, but then again – to paraphrase Joseph Heller – who has been?

Then, in the Nineties, she dropped off my radar screen. Perhaps she disappeared, perhaps I just wasn't paying attention. Until I honed up on her career for this interview, I wasn't sure which. I wondered what she might look like these days. (I briefly imagined her pudgy and petulant, before banishing the thought.) I even had to think how old she might be. Her performance in Bad Timing was so knowing and complex, I reckoned that she had to have been at least 30 when she did it. That was in 1979 or 1980. Which would make her what? Fifty? Fifty-five? Turns out I was way off. "People often think I'm older, or that I'm English," she tells me later, not knowing that I'd fallen into exactly that trap. She is, in fact, 44 (and a Californian born and bred), but looks a good 10 years younger.

When I first saw her, she was bounding into the living room behind her retriever Rusty, looking elastic as an adolescent. She was wearing a denim jacket and casual black jeans, and gave the sort of unassuming welcome you'd expect from a friendly neighbour, not a movie star. Perhaps it is because she occupied the art-house margins of the industry for so long, but Russell has none of the usual Hollywood bullshit about her. What you see is what you get, with or without fancy clothes and make-up. Her beauty comes stripped of artifice or the threat of intimidation; when she lights up her fabulous electric smile, you know she means it.

The reason for our interview is the release of her most noteworthy film in years, the provocative, much discussed winner of last year's Sundance festival called The Believer. Based on the bizarre true-life case of a New York neo-Nazi who turned out to be Jewish, the film is a raging, iconoclastic, intellectually probing study of both Judaism and anti-Semitism, the polar opposites at the heart of the central character (rivetingly portrayed by the young Canadian actor Ryan Gosling). Russell plays a sort of Nazi hen-mother called Lina Moebius, who nurtures the young men in the movement to be good fascists and dreams of a future in which the world bends to her disconcertingly extreme views.

It is exactly the kind of cutting-edge material that Russell has always been attracted to, but it has been a while since she got her teeth into something this substantial – or this disturbing. "I'd never played a Nazi before, so that was a challenge," she says with a certain breeziness. "I've played bad people, but nobody quite this evil. And evil people need to be portrayed very well."

Hers is not a huge part, and she barely had time to prepare: she was called up a couple of summers ago, given exactly two hours to read the script and say if she was interested, then told she had to leave for New York within three days to begin shooting. Still, she manages to exude a chilly evil, not flashy or charismatic like a standard screen villain's, but startling in its very matter-of-factness. The way the camera captures her makes her look taut and angular, her natural sensuousness entirely absent.

"I didn't have time to do much, but I had this memory from the news of Saddam Hussein standing in a packed auditorium and explaining how the man in front of him was his best friend but that he had to kill him anyway because of what he had done. And Saddam was crying," she recalled. "That's the quality of evil I tried to bring to Lina Moebius. She feels the whole world could be perfect if only everyone would listen to her. Sure, she thinks, we might have to kill a few people, but the world will be better for it in the end. Scary."

Russell has largely stayed out of the controversies dogging the film – its US release has been postponed indefinitely because of complaints from a member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the sensitivities of the post-11 September world. She did make the incontrovertible point that this is hardly a pro-fascist film, coming as it does from a Jewish director, Henry Bean, who regularly attends an Orthodox synagogue. But she didn't want to be drawn into the film's more contentious debates about the nature of Judaism.

Fair enough. Her priority these days is to get back to work now that her two sons are almost grown, her 17-year marriage to Nic Roeg is over – she recently moved back to California from London – and she has to fend for herself to pay for her hilltop house, her sun-kissed movie-star pool and her panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. As she puts it, a touch self-deprecatingly: "I'll do anything for a regular paycheck, you know."

Making herself known to the Hollywood crowd at this late stage in her career has been a peculiar experience. In a town with a notoriously short memory, many people have only a dim notion of who she is. "For so long, I worked a lot with Nic, which was certainly more interesting than most of the stuff around, but on the other hand I didn't get paid very much," she says. "I was quite cavalier about my career choices. Now it's almost like starting over. I've taken roles I would never have done before, but I've learned a lot about my craft by doing them."

She is certainly working. Taking up much of her time these days is a television drama series being shot in Vancouver that is tentatively called Glory Days. She plays Hazel, a waitress with a past – a role that is good for 11 episodes in the first instance, and could be her passport back to prominence if the show, which begins airing in the US next year, is a success.

As for film work, she relies on old friends and contacts and the occasional young executive who has studied the work of Nic Roeg in film school. "You'd have to work through a lot of A-list actresses who were ill or pregnant before they'd get down the list to me," she laughs. It's not that anyone doubts her talents; it's just that most people these days have no concept of them. Which is why playing a Nazi in a subversive independent movie, for the moment, suits her just fine.