My first real job as an actress was with the director Roman Polanski. I’d met him in 1965. I was nineteen, 'Repulsion' with Catherine Deneuve had just been released and he was suddenly London’s celebrated genius.
I knew little about him. But my flat mate Jackie Bisset had landed a part in his next film, 'Cul de Sac,' soon to start shooting, and he invited us both to the Ad Lib.
The Ad Lib club was the hot spot to be. A dark room on the top floor of a building in Leicester Place, with smoke-mirrored walls and a glittering view of London. The noise was incredible, the music thumping: 'Get Off My Cloud,' 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' 'I got You Babe,' the dance floor packed with bodies, heads rocketing back and forth, arms snapping. That night John Lennon was at one table, Mick at another. And I remember my outfit because I was a touch overweight: a long bias skirt from Biba, the waist unfashionably secured with a safety pin, a tight pink sweater and brick-high platforms.
Roman was sitting in a corner with his producing partner, Gene Gutowski. We pushed through the crowd and Jackie slid in next to Gene. I stood there awkwardly until Roman said, “Hey, c’mon. Sit here.” So I did. He wasn’t fluent in English then, so we spoke French. “What are you doing here? In London?” he asked. "Qu’est ce que tu fais ici? A Londres?" He had a gravely voice and spoke in short bursts, as if he permanently lacked oxygen, the strain all the more apparent over the crashing music. “Well, I’m a model,” I said, shouting back. Mannequin! And to acknowledge this lack of professional originality, I added provocatively, “And, of course, an actress too!” The last line was said in English, but he laughed anyway.
The following week he screened his acclaimed Polish movies for me –– 'Knife in the Water' and 'Two Men In a Wardrobe'–– and by that time we were having an affair. I thought his films were extraordinary. And I’d never met anyone like him. He was a volcano, bursting with energy and curiosity, and unlike British men with their veiled references, he said exactly what he thought. He told me I wore too much makeup and he didn’t like my clothes. “Ca ne va pas du tout!” he announced, when I turned up at his house in a pair of grey flannel culottes, fashionable at the time. Roman was right. I had no idea how to dress, although, apparently, no other man had noticed. And I was jealous of the sleek athletic beauties like Charlotte Rampling, who I’d once witnessed at a tea party casually eat her way through an entire jar of strawberry jam.
How did she do it? Starving, I swallowed diet pills and picked at my food. At dinner, Roman watched me impatiently. “What are you doing? You’re not eating enough,” he protested. “ You look great! Mange!” Then sliding half his steak onto my plate, he’d add, with a parched-throat laugh, “You want me to chew it for you, too?”
Roman thought I had promise as an actress. He must have seen something, but the truth was I couldn’t even begin to understand the creative process. For all the hamming around as a child, it didn’t translate to anything believable on the screen. Even so, by then I’d already been in two foreign movies: one French, in which I joined a group of wayward teenagers trying to foil a murder; then a lamentable low-budget Italian film, Fumo di Londra, shot in London, where as a rock singer I’d wiggled around for two weeks miming into a microphone.
The Fearless Vampire Killers was a comic take on the old Dracula story, and Roman ( performing in it, too) cast me as the serving wench at the Inn. By this time Roman and I were close friends and he had fallen in love with the beautiful Sharon Tate – also to become a good friend.
I only had a few scenes, but he patiently acted them out for me, talking softly in his flat accented voice, showing me how to throw away a line. I copied him. I mimicked every inflection, every pause, and managed to give a passable performance. However, one of the stars, Jack McGowran, noticing my difficulty, suggested I should take lessons. He helped me enroll in an American school run by Patrick O’ Neall, to study the Stanislavski Method.
But I couldn’t grasp it. Even if I understood the theory of “drawing on past experiences” to portray emotions, I was too inhibited, incapable of tapping into the real stuff. When asked by one of the teachers to go on stage and become a tree—already an alarming, if not incomprehensible, idea for a down-to-earth English girl—all I could do to camouflage my fear was to clown around, grimacing and shaking my arms until I made the students laugh.
Read more adventures in the acting trade...with fiery director Ken Russell, coming soon!