The much-loved actress talks Quartet, Shirley Valentine and being directed by Dustin Hoffman.
11 Dec 2012 - 3:57 PM  UPDATED 11 Dec 2012 - 3:57 PM

Pauline Collins has been a working actress for 30-odd years, becoming an overnight global sensation in 1989 with the release of Lewis Gilbert's film adaptation of the hit play, Shirley Valentine. In Australia to promote Quartet, the directing debut of Dustin Hoffman in which she co-stars with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly, Collins cheerfully reflects on her career as one of the UK's favourite actresses...

When you look back on those heady days of Shirley Valentine, both during its stage run and then the film, what perspective does time and memory afford you?

It was a time of great enjoyment, right from when I first read the part. I didn't know anything about it, when I got this play in script form, and I started to read and thought to myself, “This is a long speech”. Then I realised that that was the whole play, that 'Shirley' plays everything. And I loved it because I knew every character in it because that's where I'm from, y'know. Liverpool, Wallasey, the opposite side of the Mersey. All the voices were in my head the minute I read it. The movie never crossed my mind, obviously, until I had a call from [director] Lewis Gilbert, who said, “I want you to do this”. Then he said, “But Paramount Pictures want Cher”. Lewis owned the rights and he told Paramount that he would not do it with Cher, so five people from Paramount came to see me [on stage] on a Monday night. That's a little bit of pressure, right there! Just to see if I'd be right for it, which they did decide in the end, which was great. It was very exciting.

And it was lovely that my mum was around and got to see me on Broadway and getting nominated for the Oscar and a Golden Globe, although she never came to Hollywood. I didn't expect to win any of those things because I was up against Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy, so I wasn't angst-ridden, thinking “I better get this!”. And I loved the Oscars; it was the first year Billy Crystal had done it. It was such a joyous time.

And what do you recall of your Australian working experience here on Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road, with Cate Blanchett and Glenn Close? It looked to have been a very tough shoot.

Well, no, it wasn't actually. We were staying at a lovely resort in Port Douglas and they flew us out into the jungle every day and we put our frocks on. There were a few jungle sores but then they brought us back at night. It was great crowd. I'd never worked with an Australian crew before and they were just so easy to be with, so lovely.

What is the work ethic like on the set of a film like Quartet, one that features the likes of Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly? What does age and wisdom bring to the working environment?

Nothing (laughs). I think you are what you are, as an actor. Some people are analytical, some work from the gut. Maggie and I probably work from the gut; Tom is probably more analytical. Billy works from the gut, I'm fairly certain. Michael Gambon, my goodness, he works from the stratosphere.

And as an extension of that question, what is it like working with a first-time director who also happens to be one of the greatest actors of the last few generations?

He is a great teacher.

What did you learn from Hoffman the director that you hadn't seen in Hoffman the actor?

Oh, many things, but the thing I most learned about him was what a communicator he is. What a warm, compassionate person he is. And you don't expect that of him because you hear stories about him, of the way he works. But he was very happy for us to work in our own ways. Sometimes he and I used to have differences over my character. I had a very clear way that I wanted Cissy's problem, vascular dementia, to be portrayed. It is not Alzhiemer's, which is a killer; there is still hope in her, for her. Not the prospect of recovery, because there is no going back, but her cup is still half-full. And Dustin, like many directors who are also actors, would say “Okay, you come in like this,” and I would say “No, I won't be coming in like that. That's Rain Man, that's not me and it's certainly not Cissy” (laughs). That would make him very happy. And also we improvised a fair amount. The writer, Sir Ronald Harwood, was happy for us to do that. Sometimes it loosens the situation.

There is a naturalness about the performances that had I put down to wisdom and experience but it seems Hoffman's on-set technique was just as influential.

Yes, we all improvise at times, to a greater or lesser degree. Also, English film comes from a very literary tradition and I think we always have too many words in our films. In film, you really, really just need the picture. The emotion can be conveyed and the story can be told by standing way, way back from the actors. Maggie's scene, after she has bashed me with the flowers and she is filled with regret; you see her go out into the night and sit on the bench. The camera is not close, she says nothing, but it tells the story. The audience knows everything that is going on.

I've not seen Daniel Schmid's documentary, Tosca's Kiss (the 1984 documentary set in a Milanese retirement home called the Casa Verdi and populated by the nation's greatest ageing opera singers and orchestra musicians)...

Oh my, you must. It is heartbreaking and inspiring. There is one scene in it where a soprano called Sara Scuderi is shuffling along a corridor in slippers and her dressing gown, and one of the nurses stops her for chat. When the nurse asks her to sing a few notes, this old lady suddenly straightens up a bit, opens her mouth, and this glorious voice comes out of this ancient person. It still has so much strength and I thought it was so moving, so brilliant.

In Quartet, you're not surrounded by extras miming to songs or fake-playing. These are the greatest musical artists of their generations. Did that add a sense of duty to your performance?

Well, it makes you realise you can't really sing (laughs). These people would teach us about posture and standing tall and strong. Even though we all had lessons, we were surrounded by these incredible artists who would guide us daily. I don't know if you sing at all, but what singing does is that it makes you feel great. It helps your breathing and the resonance in your head. It gave a sense, by looking at the opera singers in the documentary and also the ones around us on set, of the grandeur of them; they are much grander than actors.

This current wave of films that focus on... and I say this delicately...

Don't be delicate. Go on, say it!

...the elderly. Films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet.

And Amour. I haven't watched it yet but I will when I get my screener from the Academy.

Yes, Amour. Why are they connecting with audiences and why don't we see more of them?

Well, we may see more of them. There was a run of them back in the '80s, ones like Cocoon and that other one with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn about the aliens who live in their basement...

*batteries not included.

Yes, *batteries not included. They were kind of 'cute' oldies, fluffy, grey-haired 'safe' oldies. The [current] oldies are not safe. I think they are pushing the boundaries of how to behave when one becomes old. And that's hard. We are all young; we are still what we once were, 40 years ago. We still have the same aspirations and feelings.

How has sharing your life with an equally talented, creative individual influenced your life as an actor? (Collins has been married to actor John Alderton for 43 years; they starred together in the hit TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and Thomas & Sarah)

The great thing about marrying someone in your own profession, whether it's a baker or teacher or actor, is that you understand each other's problems and strengths and weaknesses. And over the years we've taken turns in things like child-minding, with massive help from our parents. I think it's the give-and-take that a lot of married couples should have. But I don't know why people are so surprised about actors. Unless you're one of those stars who wants to poke the leading lady! I did actually work with a lovely actress who confessed to me one day, “I don't know what to do. I don't fancy the man I'm working opposite.” And I said, “Well, that's ok.” And she said, “No, you don't understand. I have to have my leading man.” So I said, “Mmm... okay. Well then, just take an easy ride on this one!”

Quartet is released in cinemas across Australia on December 26.