Mia Farrow was honored on 8 August with the Festival’s Leopard Club Award, which pays tribute to someone in film whose work has left a mark on the collective imagination.
Jay Weissberg, film critic for Variety, speaks with Mia Farrow about her career, passions, the art and craft of acting, her upcoming role on Broadway and growing up in Hollywood royalty. An engaging and smart storyteller, she has a self-effacing sense of humor and deep honesty. The hour-long talk was held in Locarno on 9 August in a packed auditorium – the backdrop of which could have reflected a movie scene, as lights flickered during torrential rains and thunderstorms raged.
Weissberg: With your father a director and mother an actress, did you fall into acting?
Farrow: No, I had a lot of other plans as well. I was going to be a fireman. A fighter pilot -- why I don’t know. And I wanted to be a nun. I got all the best parts in plays in high school. I grew up in Beverly Hills, my mother had come from Ireland and all her colleagues had come from across America and Europe too. This town of Beverly Hills was a town of making films not a town of generations who had lived there for a lot of time. All the kids I grew up with were growing up in films. George Cukor was my godfather. My parents for pragmatic reasons -- Luella Parsons was my godmother. It was political…they were buying her praise or silence, as the case was needed.
Weissberg: When you first began acting was it, ‘Oh sure I can do it’ or a concern ‘Oh this is a craft I need to study?
Farrow: Definitely the latter. I was 16, on Broadway, my father just died. My brother had been killed in an airplane crash. I began auditioning and got this part in Importance of Being Earnest. I sat in on many classes; Wynn Hammond, Uta Hagen, the Actors Studio. I didn’t commit to any of them; I sat in on as many classes as I could. I got Summer stock. I learned on my feet.
Weissberg: On "Rosemary’s Baby" there was a clash between John Cassavetes, known for naturalism and spontaneity and Polanski, a rigid filmmaker.
Farrow: Their two styles could not have been more different. With Polanski there was the precision, exactness, mapping out his shots, that he required of his actors. (Farrow demonstrates) If you had a glass that was a little too up to the right - you ruined that shot. Cassavetes did handheld stuff, he was free to say what he wanted, and there was a lot of adlibbing. Cassavetes quickly found he was not comfortable with the confines, the rigidity of these extraordinary shots that Polanski mapped out.
Weissberg: It’s extraordinary over your career your ability to surprise us. Just when we, the public or industry has typecast you, you turn around and do something unexpected. "Broadway Danny Rose" and earlier on in "Rosemary's Baby" and "John and Mary." Let’s talk about change for your characters internally and externally.
Farrow: That’s part of the job. There are actors who didn’t change characters whom I admire like Spencer Tracy and Yul Brynner. Yul said he had a different walk in every film. He thought he was a different character. If you can successfully convey that then you have to find it in yourself to make that person real. In "Broadway Danny Rose" I patterned it after the wife of a friend of Frank Sinatra’s and a woman in a restaurant. I knew how she should look and talk. There was an assistant in one of the offices and I said, ‘Can you read my lines and I can tape you to get that accent right?’ I had to change that timbre. I tried to gain the weight but still had to fake everything. Now you can’t do that part and stay in the part and do "The Purple Rose of Cairo," too (which was shot at the same time). I was in the Royal Shakespeare Academy; you can’t NOT change. It’s part of the way of my training.
Weissberg: You’re going back to Broadway next month in Love Letters. What made you want to come back to the stage?
Farrow: I’ve been saying to myself, that I don’t want to act again because drama is enough in life, but I’m still earning a living. Then I wondered if that’s true; that I don’t want to act. It’s only one month on Broadway and I should see before I make definitive statements about anything. One of my sons said, ‘Don’t make these statements; acting is something you can do that can be meaningful. Don’t be so cavalier with something you were given.’
Weissberg: Did your mother give you any acting advice?
Farrow : She gave advice about acting and being truthful. ‘Don’t ever do your hair in the style of the times unless there’s a real point to looking a certain way. Choose simple clothes and hair, so people can see your role ten years from now, unless you’re deliberately trying to convey it.’ I think in "Rosemary's Baby" that was ‘me’ in that situation, I had to imagine myself in that situation and then I tried to have her look not so sixties not so anything in particular.
In response to a question about organizing a full and complicated life while juggling all the balls in the air.
Farrow: It’s better not to think of them as balls in the air otherwise I would probably drop everything. I have multiple interests and I’ve always been like that. You’ll see on Twitter what my interests are. (Farrow talks about UNICEF trips to Central African Republic and the genocide there.) I try to bring some attention there to a neglected crisis.
In response to a question about Frank SinatraFarrow: I would say in essence a shy man who was extremely empathetic, and a shy man who took pains to cover his shyness with a toughness you saw. There were many aspects of his childhood growing up in Hoboken; his mother’s only son, skinny, he wanted to be singer and the guys in his school were tough, he got a lot of bullying. We all carry our six year-old self, and that self, that essential self, was a very sensitive and essentially shy person. He was fascinated about a lot of things. I am very glad to have known him. He was a good friend. I loved him very much.
Weissberg: Is the legend true that Prudence is your sister from the Beatles’ song ?
Farrow: I wish the song was called Dear Mia. The Beatles wrote the White Album when we were all in India. My sister Prudence was a meditator years before we went to India. Each of us was mired in our own particular nightmares. We get to the Himalayas, and she goes into meditation 24-hours a day and I have a short attention span. You get a mantra from the guru and you learn; you bring flowers and fruit. It’s a ceremony. Well, I have a little bout with hay fever – the guru has a wreath around his neck and he carefully tells me my secret word and I sneezed! I didn’t hear it properly. I asked him, “Would you mind repeating it?” Guru said, “No you have heard it.’ I said, “No really, I don't think so.” He never would repeat the word. That's probably why I never achieved that karmic bliss. The Beatles were outside our door, asking Prudence (and Farrow sings) “Won’t you come out and play?”(Upon hearing the song back in the U.S.) Prudence doesn’t like getting anything that’s prideful. Me -- I would have had Dear Mia tee shirts made!
Weissberg: Hollywood is not a comfortable place for a woman past 40.
Farrow: It’s okay I don’t look 20 anymore. Judi Dench looks like Judi Dench and we love the way she looks. And we love Maggie Smith. We love all the Maggie Smiths of her lifetime. We love all the Sally Fields and we hope she will go on to impress us. There is a residual fear from the olden days, except Katherine Hepburn, women [over 40] disappeared into their mansions because they thought they would disappoint fans. Or went to surgeons. There was a lot of fear of growing old. That’s not on the top of my one millions fears.
I ask Farrow about the disparity of women directors working in the industry
Farrow cites Kathryn Bigelow as a success story and hopes the situation changes.
Farrow: I haven’t worked with women directors yet but I would like to. Women are capable of doing anything. We’ve had some big hits. I hope one day when I do another film if I have the time to work with a woman director. I would love to work with women. We are better communicators.
In response to Farrow’s relationship with social media
Farrow: I love Twitter; my son taught me. It’s a great way to use information, to convey information for me as a human being and as UN ambassador. I told my children, ‘With knowledge comes responsibility.’ I feel if I can convey that information, maybe people can act upon it. It’s about all of us using what is in our arsenal to try to make the world a little more peaceful or compassionate.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell presents international workshops and seminars on screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com, http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog .