Olivia Hussey has been charming audiences for the last forty-five years, first gaining acclaim in 1968 for her award-winning performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s spellbinding adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the age of just sixteen.
Born in Argentina and raised in England, Hussey was discovered by Zeffirelli during a London production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and was offered the lead role in his next production. The Shakespeare tragedy transformed her into an overnight sensation, receiving praise from critics and adoration from her fans.
Following several more prominent roles and the birth of her first child, Alexander, Hussey was cast as a young woman terrorised by a dangerous caller in the Canadian thriller Black Christmas. Despite Variety dismissing it as ‘a bloody, senseless kill-for-kicks feature,’ the movie slowly gained a cult following over the next decade, laying out the blueprint for the subsequent slasher boom of the early 1980s. Directed by Bob Clark, later known for the teen sex comedy Porky’s, Black Christmas is now considered one of the most influential horror movies of the 1970s.
Over the next fifteen years Hussey would work with an array of revered names, including Bette Davis (Death on the Nile), Glenn Ford (Virus), James Mason (Ivanhoe) and Laurence Olivier (The Last Days of Pompeii), while also taking on such complex roles as the Virgin Mary in Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Hussey would eventually return to horror in 1990 with two made-for-TV projects, both broadcast the same month. The first was Psycho IV: The Beginning, a prequel to the Alfred Hitchcock classic, in which she portrayed Mrs Bates, the mother of disturbed Oedipal killer Norman Bates.
The second was a three-hour mini-series based on Stephen King’s popular novel It, in which Tim Curry played a supernatural evil force that took the form of a sinister clown, returning to a small town thirty years after it had apparently been destroyed to continue its reign of terror on the local children. Twenty-five years after bringing the Virgin Mary to life, Hussey fulfilled her dream of portraying Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a TV movie of the same name. Hussey had expressed her desire to take on the role many years earlier, confessing to People in 1992 that, ‘One of my dreams is to play Mother Teresa.’
After returning to horror in 2005 with Headspace, which also featured Sean Young and Dee Wallace, Hussey appeared in the western Three Priests alongside her son, Alexander Martin. With a family rich with entertainment, including her husband, former Dirty White Boy frontman David Glen Eisley, perhaps it was inevitable that Hussey’s daughter, India Eisley, would also turn to acting, gaining acclaim in her own right through her performances in ABC’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager and appearing in the horror sequel Underworld: Awakening.
Olivia Hussey discusses her horror legacy, celebrities and working with screen legends.
In a 2002 interview with the Telegraph you said, ‘I grew up with the whole world watching. One moment, I was just a girl acting in a movie, and then I was internationally famous.’ Having survived the perils of overnight fame, do you feel emotionally affected when you read about former child stars who succumb to the pressures of the entertainment industry?
Not really. I believe we all come to this Earth knowing what our lessons are for that particular incarnation. I feel compassion for anyone that has a hard time with their chosen life. It’s not the lessons that matter; it’s the way we choose to handle them. We always have a choice! Life is a gift and we all go through many different phases in one lifetime, we just have to adapt to the changes as they happen. Life really is a gift and a chance to work out our karma.
With your daughter India having followed in your footsteps by becoming an actress, does she remind you of yourself when you were in your late teens and would you like to see her also play Juliet?
She was actually asked to audition to play Juliet for a new production, and she told her manager, ‘Why would I want to remake a perfect film? My mom played Juliet like nobody else ever will. I am following in my mother’s footsteps, but I am not my mother!’ I do see a lot of my sensitivity in India, though it can be hard to be so sensitive. It really does help you when you act.
How long did it take for you to realise how iconic your character in Black Christmas was among horror fans, as it helped to create the blueprint for what would eventually become known as the ‘scream queen’?
I am honoured and proud to be remembered for anything that makes people feel; whether it’s Juliet, Mother Teresa, the Virgin Mary or Jesse in Black Christmas. It’s all good! I have had a great time bringing all these characters to life. Scream queen…that’s funny.
The current trend of Hollywood remakes is often a hot topic, particularly among horror fans. Did you have an opinion when you heard that Black Christmas was updated?
I knew that nobody would remake Black Christmas and improve on Bob Clark’s version. He was a wonderful director, had a vision and knew how to put it on film. There are not too many of those talents around!
With the recent TV series Bates Motel focusing on the childhood of Norman Bates, how do you feel about how this was portrayed in Psycho IV: The Beginning and what are your thoughts on how Vera Farmiga has played the role?
I loved the way that Henry Thomas portrayed the young Norman Bates, and I thought I played a psychotic, perverse mother rather well…scared myself in a couple of those scenes! It was also wonderful to get a chance to work with Anthony Perkins, who was the original and great Norman Bates. I have not seen Bates Motel; have no interest in seeing it. I’m sure Vera Farmiga is doing a fine job; she is a fine actress.
You have cited Mother Teresa of Calcutta as your dream role, whom you portrayed in a TV movie a few years ago. Were you inspired by Mother Theresa on a spiritual level, particularly as the project took many years to come to fruition?
I was inspired by Mother Teresa, who went out into the streets of Calcutta after having had a vision of Jesus, and with nothing started making a difference, ‘one person at a time.’ Formed her own order of nuns (a lot of whom I met…amazing women), who to this day help the poorest of the poor. How can anyone not be inspired? After playing Mary, I was asked who I would love to play; after playing Juliet and Mary, what female role could follow those two roles? And without a thought I said Mother Teresa of Calcutta! A selfless soul who puts her words into actions for good.
I dreamed of playing her for twenty years; she had approved me to play her after the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis told her that she believed I was the only actress to play her. But sadly that production never got realised. Everything happens in its right time. I had wanted Franco Zeffirelli to do it but over the years it just didn’t happen.
I regret that Zeffirelli didn’t do it, but I am very happy that I got to play her. I felt her energy course through me many times during that difficult shoot. And the missionaries told me that they felt they were watching Mother herself when they saw the film, so I am happy with it. I had seen almost all footage and all TV specials on Mother and read a few books.
With celebrities being in a position where they can cast an influence and promote charities, do you think it is their duty to try to inspire their fans politically and highlight social issues?
No I don’t; there is the celebrity side and there is the private side. We are all just people with our feelings and opinions; if an actor feels strongly about an issue, then it’s up to them if they want to promote or get involved with highlighting it. It depends on the person; it is their passion, not their duty! I promote kindness and compassion to animals; I try to bring awareness to these issues. I don’t consider it my duty, just my passion.
You made your long-awaited return to horror in 2005 with the low budget Headspace. How did such a young and inexperienced director handle working with such genre icons as Dee Wallace and Udo Kier?
Headspace came about for me because Andrew van den Houten, the director, wanted me to do it. He was only twenty-four-years-old at the time and had such passion and drive that I got swept up in it. Everybody but the older actors were in their twenties; it was a blast! I only shot for a few days, but had a lot of fun. Andrew also gave my daughter India a small part in it, which was later cut. We had fun. Andrew was a joy to work with and I’m sure that Udo and Dee felt the same way I did about working with him. He was driven and knew what he wanted.
Another impressive ensemble cast was in Kinji Fukasaku’s 1980 post-apocalyptic thriller Virus, which co-starred George Kennedy, Glenn Ford, Robert Vaughn and Sonny Chiba. Did you ever feel overwhelmed to work with such a calibre of talent?
No, the bigger and more talented the actors the easier it is to work with them. They know what they are doing and they do it well, and never make one feel that they should in any way be overwhelmed. Sir Lawrence Olivier was the sweetest, most humble man I have ever met, so was the great David Niven, and never once did I feel overwhelmed working with them! Burt Lancaster, too…lovely man!
In the four decades since the release of Black Christmas, the horror genre has become more explicit, both in terms of violence and sex. Do you feel that at times these films have gone too far and do you personally enjoy watching horror movies?
I never watch horror films; I get too scared. EVERYTHING has become more explicit in this day and age. Sometimes it’s better to see less and leave more to the imagination. That, to me, can be a lot more terrifying than seeing all the blood and guts. But that’s just my opinion!