Jacqueline Bisset on her latest film and career typecasting: "They would say I was too pretty"

Jacqueline Bisset and her "Loren & Rose" director spoke to Salon about filmmaking, influences and collaboration

Published March 2, 2022 5:18PM (EST)

Jacqueline Bisset in "Loren and Rose" (Wise Lars Productions)
Jacqueline Bisset in "Loren and Rose" (Wise Lars Productions)

Rose Martin (Jacqueline Bisset) and Loren Bresher (Kelly Blatz) are the title characters in writer/director Russell Brown's engrossing two-hander, "Loren & Rose," about a young up-and-coming filmmaker and the once-famous now troubled actress he is meeting with to possibly cast in his feature debut. The film is having its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on March 3 and 5 and will screen March 25-26 at the Sonoma Film Festival, where Bisset will be honored on the 25th.

"Loren and Rose" unfolds almost entirely at a restaurant where the characters share three meals over the course of several years. But this lively film never feels like a rehash of "My Dinner with Andre" — even if the characters talk about art and experience, inspiration and validation. Here, they buoy each other's self-worth as they consider their lives, relationships, and careers. 

Bisset is marvelous, giving a very enthusiastic performance that leans into her character's more fanciful moments, and she is a joy to watch. Rose's speech about a trip to Bhutan is compelling but so are her vainer moments, as when she asks, optimistically, if Loren has seen one of her more forgettable films, or when she publicly performs a scene from "Salome."

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Brown keeps the film engaging as he zooms in on the characters as their relationship develops. He and Bisset chatted with Salon about "Loren and Rose," her career, and their thoughts about the creative process. 

Let me start with a question that is asked in the film. Jacqueline, where did you catch the acting bug, and Russell, what inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Jacqueline Bisset: When I saw wonderful foreign movies when I was about 15. I didn't have television. My parents used to go see foreign films on Thursdays, and one night, they asked me to come with them. I saw Jeanne Moreau and I was done for! And Giuletta Masina, and Anthony Quinn. All the Italian films. Truffaut, and the magic of discovering that women were not pretty and nice and all things good. They were revolutionary, or tough, strong — magic. Monica Vitti, and all these incredible actors doing subversive things. I wanted to see more of it. I didn't even think I could act. That was absolutely out of range! 

Russell Brown: In a way, I am similar to Jacqueline. I was just a kid, watching movies. I had to walk an hour and a half to get to a VHS rental place and I'd come back with a stack of movies. Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh — and I would read everything about the actors. I was into old Hollywood movies. In high school, I started making films. I thought I wanted to be a critic. I was really into history. I went to school to study the history of film, and it evolved out of that. 

We got cable TV when I was 11 and I watched everything I could. Just like you. I started going to revival theaters. I was far more interested in Antonioni and Fellini than "Star Wars."

Bisset: What is it about these experiences? Is it healthy, or normal? 

I think it is about seeing something you could relate to or identify up on screen, finding a sense of belonging.

Bisset: Is that what it is? I don't know that I ever felt I belonged. I felt like an imposter. Even in my desire to be part of that. How could I dare think I could be in that milieu or in one of those worlds? Does it show dissatisfaction in one's own life?

Brown: People's taste in movies reflects the kind of life they want to lead. When I was in film school, everyone was into science fiction, and "Star Wars," and the culture that came out of that. And I was really getting into European cinema you both spoke about — Antonioni, Fellini and Truffaut. I discovered that in college. There's a literary sensibility, and intelligence, a refinement, and interest in a life in the mind. That is what all these films have in common. It's not escapism the way science fiction is.

Bisset: Did we think what we were watching was real life? The cinema is not real life. 

Brown: There is that line from "Loren and Rose," "It's the mirror of the world!"

Bisset: That line actually resonates with me.

I've always said the silver screen is a mirror reflecting back at us. What I love about "Loren and Rose" is that I can identify with both characters. Can you talk about your approach to telling this story and these characters?

Bisset: Having spoken a lot with Russell, I was watching him and sensing his thoughts having rehearsed it, I was very conscious of his largesse to give me these places to visit to pass on to Loren, gradually, to enchant him, gently in a way, and pushy in another way.

Brown: There is a feeling the film is very casual, and they are having this conversation, but there is an incredible amount of rigor that has gone into what they are saying to each other at every moment and what their motivation is to say and do these things. It started out with a huge volume of dialogue. Overwriting was the easy part. Getting it down in the editing to what are the most essential things that they have to say to keep the movie interesting, and the motion of the dialogue moving forward. The death of the film is if it is boring watching two people chat. It is a constant push forward with the dialogue. Jacqueline said something to me early on — and it is one of those things that you never forget for the rest of your life — she said, "It had to be a simple line, straight through. It had to be this tight string. It couldn't meander, because that's when the audience gets bored."

Bisset: That was something I understood after working with John Huston in "Under the Volcano." The way he made the script leaner and leaner, he ignored all kinds of things in Mexico that were fantastic to look at. Also, to some degree from George Cukor. I didn't know it in the same way I know it now. Now I can read a script and can pick up where the audience is going to get bored. If you are an actor, you have to find something essential for the story, otherwise you will wind up on the cutting room floor. 

Rose's career ranges from breakthrough performance in a shocking role as a libidinous nun, to starring in schlocky "Mega-Gator" films. In contrast, your career, Jacqueline, you just mentioned working with John Huston and George Cukor and your worked with François Truffaut and many other extraordinary directors. What are your thoughts about your career?

Bisset: It's in the past. I look at the list and think, "I did that. That was interesting, that was boring, that was good." It's in the past. "Loren and Rose" is not a commercial piece, but I loved the material. I had an instinct about Russell. I knew it would be a short shoot with a small budget, and I like working like this. I don't need a big trailer. I never did like it. I found it frightening, and too much like an assembly line. I have done big projects, and I was excited to meet big stars. I had a lot of good experiences, but I always knew I wanted to do the more intimate material, and it took years for me to find it. But [my roles] are often based on the perceptions of how I looked. I would say, "I could play this role," and they would say I was too pretty. What the **k? They don't consider you, which is horrible. What do I have to do to get interesting material? 

With "Loren and Rose" I felt safe that the words were there. Russell would get irritated with me sometimes, but I felt safe. It was solid stuff. It has sensitivity and depth. There was an incredible relationship; Rose gives love to this young person she admires. She encourages Loren, and his attention to her makes her feels seen, which is terribly important in life. He questions what she says. This is fantastic! So few people ask questions in this town [L.A.]. If you start to say this happened to me, they take over conversation. The whole conversation disappears into the air. This is not my kind of heaven. I like to get in there with discussions and details. We don't have to agree. but I love it. 

Loren and RoseDirector Russell Brown with "Loren and Rose" actors Kelly Blatz and Jacqueline Bisset (Wise Lars Productions)

Russell, what questions did you ask Jacqueline about her career? Did you shape Rose's character around Jacqueline? Was it collaborative?

Brown: Of course, I asked Jacqueline about her career — who wouldn't? [Laughs] And through my friendship with her before, during, and after filming, I've asked her about her life. She has had an amazing, interesting life and really lived it. But I don't think I ever took the point of view of saying, "This moment in Rose's life was this moment in your personal career." We were very focused on the text, and the character and where she was coming from and what happened in her life. All actors to a degree pull on their own life experience to create things.

Bisset: [Laughs] Just as well. I liked the line, "You like the dark side of men," and I said, "Yes, I do like the dark side of men." That is a wonderful line. So true, and very self-revelatory line. 

Brown: The dark side of people is something that is always interesting to creative people. You are always attracted to the light and dark side of people. That's what make them interesting.

Bisset: I didn't say the light side. I said the dark side. [Laughs]

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Russell, your films are often about the creative process. Can you talk about finding inspiration and validation? I like the film's message about fulfilling one's potential. 

Brown: This is my life. For whatever reason, I'm surrounded by creative people, and I love them, and what they make, and how they live — the sensuality of artistic people. It's not unusual that I write about that. I'm not particularly turned on by political debate or what other people make films about.

Bisset: I want to express my intelligence and give what I get from that to others. It's a need, and I have a big need to be creative. It could be making a dinner or arranging something in my house. I need beauty around me. I get muddled sometimes. I don't particularly enjoy chaos. I've had chaos in my life. I don't seek it out. I seek question marks and I love to look at things in detail. I'm sad that films don't go deeper. In "Day for Night," a character says, "You can make a film about anything." I can understand that; you can go deep into everything. There is so much that can be turned into incredible drama. I like a degree of drama, but I like the idea of quiet, and appreciation of quiet, and think simply and not have a cluttered mind. I don't do well in chaos.

Yes, I recall once seeing a documentary called, "Dust" which was a meditation on, well, dust. You can make a film about anything! I want to see films I can learn from. Teach me!

Bisset: I think you can leave school with curiosity intact. So many people are bored in school, but some teacher gets you up and sends you off into the world. This is the beginning of my education. I will never be bored again! We all fear boredom. It's the worst. And I fear a bored person. It shows a lack of imagination and appreciation. The human being as a lifelong project is incredible. Part of being an actress is that you have to do psychological work on the characters you play.

Jacqueline, Rose hopes Loren has seen some of her performances that flew under the radar. What films have you made that you would like folks to have seen? "High Season" comes to mind, and I love you in "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills." 

Bisset: I've done a few things that I like. When I did "The Grasshopper," it was a big deal, because it was a big part, and I learned that I didn't like being in such big parts at the time because it was non-stop rush. There was no time to think. It was a good character, based on a Gail Sheehy article. She was always thinking she was special and wanting to be in on everything. She was never happy with herself. She got involved with the wrong men and was always seeking things in an empty way. I would like people to see that.

There are discussions of art and understanding and experience. Loren says he's never been to Paris, but if he went, it may not live up to the Paris of his imagination. What are your thoughts about how we engage emotionally and intellectually with art? 

Brown: This is one of Loren's defining qualities. He is such a romantic. He can transport himself to Paris or sit in room with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keefe. He has a real power of imagination, and that is one of his charming qualities. When Rose tells a story about Bhutan, you can see it in Kelly Blatz's eyes. 

I love when she performs in the restaurants. It was cringy, but also very, "Go for it!" 

Bisset: Those were the few times Rose could behave badly or inappropriately. I was over the top. That ties into Rose when she was young. She got hurt in between.

Brown: This is Rose's worldview. In her mind, who wouldn't want to see her get up and perform "Salome" in a restaurant? Or her singing in the restaurant — she thinks: This is my gift to the world, and people love me for this, so I am going to do it. You are giving someone that moment: "Guess what I saw Rose Martin do at a restaurant today?"

What can you say about your working relationship on the film?

Brown: This power dynamic happens all the time when you work with people you admire and respect, like Jacqueline, it is someone who has a life of experience and knowledge and wisdom. You do second-guess yourself. If she says something, I'm not going to take it with the same gravitas as a 28-year-old day player, so you listen.

Bisset: That sounds really great that you think that, but lots of people don't think like that. They have hardly done any work and they are taking you away from your performance. They block you on anything instinctive that you are doing that might come, which is horrible. You are tempted to read off one's credits, but one doesn't, of course, because you've been employed to do the director's vision. That is your duty as a performer. It's your job.

Brown: But, at the same time, you can't completely roll over on own instincts if you have a feeling about something . . .

Bisset: Sometimes you literally have to. You are literally not allowed to do that. It can lead to total hatred. You get so angry and frustrated with someone who doesn't know anything. Occasionally, it happened.

Brown: Getting back to the power dynamics, in my working with Jacqueline, or Loren directing Rose, if you are smart, you chose your battles. She's right on this one. We will do it her way. 

Bisset: It is such a curious thing. When you are young, I used to assume everyone knew more than I did. I had strong instincts. This doesn't feel right, but it is, "Yes, sir." [Bisset salutes.] You have to find it the way you can. You must be malleable, and to some degree obedient on set. You can't be a pain in the ass, because it would cause chaos, and nothing will get done or it will be cut out of the film. When you express yourself in your film, it's a great physical, mental pleasure. 

Brown: I think it's unwise not to listen to ideas. As a director, you have an inner censor, but the more you hear before you finish your movie and take time to explore what your film can be, the better. 

Jacqueline, if there was an auction of your possessions, as there is of Rose's in the film, what do you think would have value? 

Brown: She has an amazing set of toaster ovens. I will say this. There are two toasters in her kitchen, and they are the shiniest, happiest toasters I've ever seen. One big one, and one little one, and they are very competitive about who gets to toast.

Bisset: If you were selling my stuff, I hate to tell you this, but when I did "The Deep," there was "the shot." It was sent to me from time to time by people who wanted me to sign it. And someone said, "You don't have to sign it." That was the most liberating thing. I will never sign that picture. The film was an amazing experience, but it is what happened afterwards, to have that so prominent in my PR, was really boring. A friend of mine had the photo laminated and mounted on a wooden board, and when she died, another friend of mine gave it to me. It's in my cupboard. No one sees it. It's been made into an object I could sell in an auction. That's the most valuable thing I have in my artifacts. That could get a few grand if it sold.

"Loren and Rose" makes its world premiere March 3 and 5 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and screens March 25-26 at the Sonoma Film Festival, where Bisset will be honored on the 25th.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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