Joanne Whalley: A star is reborn

Many a grown man - not least John Walsh - came under the spell of the divine Joanne Whalley in the Eighties. But where has she been since? Our intrepid interviewer finds out

Saturday 05 November 2005 01:00 GMT

Fear got the better of me, I'm afraid, but it was close. And it was perfectly understandable behaviour. Because in the mid-to-late 1980s, Joanne Whalley was a fantasy girlfriend for many British male viewers. She wasn't a conventional dreamboat, but she held you with her haunting, intelligent eyes, and seemed to inhabit some territory that was spiced and lamplit and indefinably sexy. She first appeared on TV in Edge of Darkness, the smash-hit 1985 BBC2 drama series about a Yorkshire cop (Bob Peck) whose daughter Emma is shot dead beside him, not because of his involvement with terrorists but because of her involvement with an environmental pressure group called Gaia. Her post-mortem appearances in her father's head, whether in flashbacks or as ghostly visitations telling him about secret nuclear programmes, turned her into a kind of visiting angel. A year later she co-starred in The Singing Detective, the Dennis Potter musical, now recognised as a TV classic. In the scene remembered by everyone who was alive in 1986, Ms Whalley, playing the coolly gorgeous Nurse Mills, anointed Michael Gambon's thighs and nether regions with ointment to calm his raging psoriasis, as he lay desperately trying to think of off-putting things (butcher's windows, Norway, penguins, Mrs Thatcher).

With two high-profile TV classics under her belt, Whalley was in demand. She was signed up to star in Mike Newell's The Good Father with Anthony Hopkins, and a year later got the role of 1988 - playing Christine Keeler, the prostitute at the heart of the Profumo affair in Michael Caton-Jones's Scandal. And then, shortly after this early career-peak, she disappeared from view - at least from the view of her slavering British fans. While playing a sharp-shooting princess in Ron Howard's Hollywood fantasia, Willow, she fell in love with her co-star, Val Kilmer, married him and moved to New Mexico. She even added his name to hers and become Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, as though flaunting her love for the pouting wünderkind, no matter what pain it caused to the excruciated faithful. She stayed there for seven years until the couple divorced in 1996, then moved to LA. Tiny wisps of information about her came and went on the breeze, but effectively she'd ceased operations.

Now she's back, soon to appear in a psychological thriller on ITV and meeting her fiercely loyal, rheumy-eyed fans. She comes through the door of the bar in Lower Regent Street, tiny and slender as anticipated, but decidedly grown-up, maternal and transatlantic. Her voice is a shock, her natural Mancunian delivery overlaid by a smoky Los Angeleno drawl. She wears heart-shaped shades, behind which her eyes are a little tired (although maybe I'm comparing them with those of Masha, 19 years ago). And she looks at London with the eyes of an outsider.

"I've been back on flying visits," she says, "but this is the first in which I've spent any length of time here, and it's a bit shocking. I love London, but I'm used to having a bit more space. When I first got here it felt so cramped. I was claustrophobic, I got overwhelmed by it. LA's a big sprawly mess and the streets are wide. Here, I'm terrified to drive. Coming into London from the airport, everyone comes really close beside you and I get a little twitchy ... "

Nice to find Ms Whalley looking at the vast metropolis of London and finding it a mimsy, overcrowded little box. But then she's got used to enormous things since she left us. Nothing in her conversation, not even talking about her children, comes close to the rapture of her descriptions of Tesuque, and the home she shared with Val Kilmer for eight years. "It's between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Tesuque isn't really a town, it's just a junction. It's got a market - you can eat there and buy things - but there's no shopping mall. It's close to the middle of nowhere. All high mountain ranges, 6,000 feet or so. There are sandy canyons called arroyos, and these little piñons, small pine trees and juniper trees everywhere. It's just [sigh] not like anywhere else." She and her husband lived in an adobe, a word that I always took to mean a mud hut inhabited by peons, but which is apparently huge and has stables and outhouses for the animals. Animals? What animals?

"We kept horses. And some buffalo."

What did they keep the buffalo for? Did she milk them for mozzarella?

"For the great joy," says Ms Whalley shortly, "of coming outside every morning and just seeing them there. And thinking, 'How amazing is that?'" She is a keen rider (horses, not buffalo, obviously) and enjoyed saddling up, galloping across the plains. "It's quite a tough country," she says. "It's all extremes. The temperature drops at night. There are flash floods which'll come down and wash through the sand and change the look of the arroyos completely. The first time I saw hailstones, I thought people were throwing rocks at the car ..."

It soon becomes obvious that Tesuque became the centre of her life. Ask for her favourite memory of 1988 - the annus mirabilis when she made Scandal, the year's biggest UK movie, and Willow, where she fell in love; the year in which she was briefly at the top of the British acting tree but gave it up - and she'll say, "I think what I remember best is going to New Mexico." And it was, of course, the place where her children were born.

Kids and deracination are at the heart of Child of Mine, a superior made-for-TV drama. Whalley plays Tess Palmer, a child psychologist with a child fixation. Her inability to conceive has plunged her into depression and attempted suicide. In extremity, she and her husband Alfie (Adrian Dunbar) take desperate measures. Through an unregistered adoption agency in Canada, they illegally adopt the McGill sisters, Grace and Heather, and set up home back in London. Expecting a life of nuclear-family bliss in their big, undecorated home, interspersed with arty trips to wine bars, and spats with her interfering mother-in-law (Sylvia Syms), Tess finds the elder kid, Hannah, turning into the Antichrist. She empties packets of cereal in Sainsbury's if she doesn't get her own way. She attacks her nice half-brother with scissors because he touches her bag. She appears around corners and in doorways doing a fair impression of the mad-staring-eyed blonde kids in Village of the Damned. We know that she and Grace witnessed their trailer-trash mother's murder. But did she actually carry it out? And how long before she stabs her new mother in the head?

It's the film that brought her back to British TV. What was so special about it? "I really like the director, Jamie Payne, and I really liked the script [by Caleb Ranson]. And because it was partly set in Canada - we went and had these huge vistas of the Canadian Rockies, this great landscape, and, next thing, we were in central London. It was a great read. And it fitted in with the children's schedules. They didn't mind shifting [from Los Angeles] to the frozen wastes of Canada, and then we all met up in London, so there was minimal disruption." Children turn up all the time in her discourse, as if she's assuring both herself and the outside world that by God, she is one hands-on mommie these days. But it could be just a natural response to the film, which is centrally concerned with strained mother-daughter relations.

Researching the part, she talked to people about infertility and how it affected them. "I don't know if I could go through what they went through. I'm quite strong, I think, pretty resilient, but I don't know if I could take it." (I think she's talking about IVF treatments.) "I mean just physically, what happens to you with the cocktail of hormones racing inside you, the mental strain, the physical strain. It's too huge."

Had she had the experience (like the Tess character) of looking at a child and seeing a hostile stranger? Or, in her case, seeing her flesh and blood becoming foreigners, Californians? "I like the English-American combination. Because they're typically British in some ways and terribly American in others."

Such as? "Well, their accents for one thing," said Joanne. "We have endless talks which start, 'That's not the way you pronounce that word.'"

What kind of words? "Oh - cen-triff-ugal, for instance, rather than centri-few-gal."

Uh-huh. Did many discussions of gravitational pull and rotational thrust go on in the Whalley household? "These words come up on a daily basis. And there's a particular sound they make when they're pronouncing, say, 'Sean' and it comes out as 'Shaaaahn'." Ms Whalley wrinkles her heavenly nose in distaste. "They just don't sound English."

She likes the combination of American forthrightness and English sarcasm she sees in Mercedes (14) and Jack (10). "Having that comfort level that Americans possess, but also having that European sophistication - that thing of questioning your place in the world. They have them both."

What they don't have to hand, of course, is their father, Val Kilmer, who split up with Joanne in 1996. It was an acrimonious parting. There had been rumours about Kilmer's involvement with the actress Drew Barrymore. When Joanne decided she wanted a divorce, she didn't break it to him gently. She waited until he was working on a movie, then filed for divorce - the first he knew about it was on CNN.

Little can be gained, all these years later, by asking her why the marriage failed (Joel Schumacher called Val "the most psychologically disturbed human being I have ever worked with". Do you understand why he said that? "I think you should ask Val that question"), but it's clear that they are both keen to play nice in public. Interviewed in London over the summer - he was starring in The Postman Always Rings Twice in Shaftesbury Avenue - Kilmer told reporters he had picked up from his ex-wife a passion for Arsenal FC (Joanne says, "It's Manchester City, excuse me - it's Jack who's the Arsenal fan") and a fascination for Ricky Gervais. The children came to see their dad in the play but (with God knows what ironic significance) weren't allowed to watch the first act, during which his character Frank has sex on a kitchen-table with Cora, the slatternly wife.

"The bottom line, for me," says Whalley, "is that we have children together, and my parents are really important to me, and I'm sure Val feels the same about his, and our children are lucky enough to have both parents available so, as they say, it's a no-brainer, you know? It's better that we should get on. You can't spend that long with someone, and have children with them, then pretend there's nothing about them you ever liked. We have a different relationship now - but we have a relationship."

SHE WAS born in 1964 in Levenshulme on the outskirts of Manchester; her dad was a plumber with his own business. Nothing in her family background explains her gypsyish colouring or her señorita eyes: "Just a funny combination of genes, I suppose." At Harrytown girls' school, she was tiny and unassertive but by 18 she was fronting a pop group called Cindy and the Saffrons. In the same year, she appeared in Alan Parker's film The Wall, playing one of the groupies chasing Bob Geldof.

Her biggest influences weren't musical, however. "The big thing for me was all the black-and-white movies on TV on Saturday afternoons. Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis - I loved all the women's pictures. I watch them still." Did she affect a walk like Lana Turner or a look like Bette Davis? "I'm sure I did, but it all went on in my head. I'm quite sure that, after seeing Bette Davis, I became her in my head for half an hour afterwards. I love those films."

By 19 she was playing at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. "Every year there was an alternative pantomime, and we all took part. It was a glorious experience. My first real theatre job was at the Royal Court, playing in the Young Writers' Festival." It was a remarkable debut in 1984. With a precocious instinct for grabbing the best parts, she played Rita in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, while appearing in the controversial Saved by Edward Bond, as the mother of the baby that's stoned to death. It was directed by Danny (Trainspotting) Boyle and drew crowds alerted by the outcry. She even acquired a stalker, who later told the papers, "I saw the play and I kept going back, and I stalked her a little bit, but I didn't meet her then. We met when we did Willow." It was, of course, Val Kilmer.

Since the bust-up, she has appeared (under her old name) in a handful of forgettable roles, including The Man Who Knew Too Little with Bill Murray, The Guilty with Bill Pullman, and A Texas Funeral in which she played another strung-out mother. I reminded her of Goldie Hawn's dictum that modern Hollywood offers three roles to women: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Where next? "I miss the stage," she said with feeling. "And I'd love to do another movie. I love to work. I'm passionate about it. But my life is equally important. I don't like to have everything mapped out. It's a luxury to have that spontaneity available to you. You have to have your eyes open to see what you might have missed. I like that feeling of never knowing where I'll end up."

Joanne, I tell her reprovingly, you cannot come on as a sensible mother one minute and talk like an old hippie the next, a leaf blown by every wind, not knowing where it'll end up. Which is it? She fixes me with her peerless eyes, black marbles dipped in cold water. "What's interesting about where I am now is, I like being the age I am. I'm quite comfortable being as vague as I am. I wouldn't change anything for the world. I wouldn't have missed anything. I know I'm OK. I know I can deal with anything that comes up. I feel confident - it's a stage you get to when you're older. It's a kind of blessing. I'm comfortable being my age now, and there's a whole world of interesting roles coming up.

'Child of Mine' is on 13 November, 9pm, ITV1

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