Sunday, 8 June 2014

It's a long time 'till midnight - An interview with Irene Miracle.


I stood in the airport toilets and stared hard at myself, was I ready to do this? Twenty grand would get me out of a lot of trouble...but really? Was I that desperate?

The tape itched and pulled at my skin and the heavy jumper I wore felt suffocating and left me breathless. It was a 7 hour flight home, a long time with fifty thousand dollars worth of cocaine strapped to your body. 

I splashed my face with water, it felt cool and refreshing but did nothing to dispel the feeling of dread that seem to pervade every inch of my body. I continued to stare at myself, repeating over and over, "I must appear calm.... I have to appear calm..." This had become my mantra over the last week,  "I must appear calm..." 

I took one last deep breath and left the safety of the bathroom. Timidly I opened the door and peered out. There were other lone travelers like myself, as well as families with kids, honeymooning couples, security staff with guns and now me. A drug smuggler.

I walked over to the check-in desk, and the desk clerk smiled as I made a swift left turn towards the seating area. I sat down next to a woman with her head deep in her paper. I tried so desperately to look calm, but I was sweating like I was in a sauna. The woman beside me looked up from her paper and gave me a kind smile, she looked familiar but I was too nervous to take note.  I realised how terrible I must look when the woman passed me a tissue and asked me if I was feeling ok.

I had been told not to interact with anyone, but she seemed genuinely concerned about my wellbeing, so I turned to say thank you. It was only then that I realised who she was.

Irene Miracle, born in StillwaterOklahoma of Scots-IrishRussianFrench and Osage descent, is an American actress. Her first film appearance was as a murder victim in 'Night Train Murders' (1975), an Italian 'Last House on the Left'-clone. Her most prestigious role was in Alan Parker's 'Midnight Express' (1978), a worldwide box office success. For her role as the girlfriend of the incarcerated protagonist, she won the Golden Globe Award for 'New Star of the Year - Female'. Miracle followed that film with another major role in Dario Argento's 'Inferno' (1980), as a woman who comes to believe the New York City apartment building she lives in also houses a centuries-old witch. Since then, she has continued her acting work, while also writing, directing and producing.... And generally being fabulous... 

Was this fate? Was this a sign? Whatever it was it was fantastic, and for the first time in a week I didn't feel I was about to be sick. Well I did a bit, but this time for a very different reason. Could I? Should I? Could I ask her a few questions about her career? It would certainly calm me. I asked her if it was ok and luckily she said yes. Even more lucky was the fact that she was unaware of what I was hiding under my sweater.

Now I know you best as Susan in 'Midnight Express', a gripping and hard hitting movie. How did you get the part?   
 "had just moved to LA from Italy only 3 months prior and ran into a friend who’d also recently emigrated from Rome, IbrahiMoussa. Here’s where the whirlwind started. In one breath he told me he’d just opened a Talent Agency, hugged me with “Ciao, Irene, come staiI’ve got the perfect part for you in a fantastic film and they are making a decision today! Here’s a copy of the script. Go home and read it. I’ll set up an interview to audition for later this afternoon”. I literally had 3 hours to race home, read the script and find the perfect outfit before making the audition

Wow, and what did you have to do for it?
First I met and auditioned for the director, Alan Parker. Then he left the room, and the producer, David Puttnam walked in and I auditioned all over again. Later, after leaving the building and reaching into my bag for my car keys I found a 1940’s antique toy with a note from David which said, “I don’t know about the part, but you sure got me”. I knew I had the part. You just KNOW these things. Back home in Santa Monica, two hours later, the phone rang. “PACK YOUR BAGS, YOU GOT THE PART”! Contracts were being drawn up and I was flying to the UK by early morning, then on to Malta. The whole thing happened so fast. I just spread my proverbial wings and let the wind take me on that magical carpet ride

And what did you think when you first read the script?
It was hands down, one of the best screenplays I’d ever read – for any actor,  reading a great screenplay, with a strong chance of being offered to role to play is always exciting and terrifying at the same time. Excitement about getting the job and fear that you won’t play the part well. To this day, the Midnight Express script is used in film schools as one of the best examples for aspiring screenwriters to learn from."

...And when you first saw the film?   
"Feelings were mixed. I was impressed by how aesthetically beautiful and emotionally profound it was, but didn’t like seeing myself. I never do. Seeing yourself on the big screen is always shocking at best. You pick at every flaw and think about how you could have done this or that ‘take’ better.  Seeing yourself, bigger than life like that somehow dilutes the purity of the process. Doing the work is exhilarating, but then looking at the visual fruits of your labors is surreal."

Two security guards passed us, they looked directly at us, furtively whispering to each other. I could feel their steely glares burning holes in me. Why were they staring so much? Did I look that suspicious? What were they discussing? It was only after one paranoid minute that I realised why they were looking; they must have recognised Irene too. After the guards had left and my heart had returned to a steady beat I continued with my questions.

The iconic scene where you expose your breasts to Billy must have been upsetting to film? What went through your mind as you were playing it? How did you channel the emotions?  
"Ah, yes…we ended up shooting that scene some 20+ times and getting into that emotional state for such a looooooooong day was incredibly drainingMuch to the credit of the filmmakers, there was a box built for me, so that only I, Brad Davis and the DP could see what was happening. Thank god, hard enough to shoot a scene like that but if we’d had a whole crew of people watching I don’t know how I would have gotten through that day.  
I got emotionally into that scene by simply putting myself in Susan’s place, a woman who loves a man deeply, who is now in a Turkish prison with no hope of getting out! Any woman in that situation would do what I did in the film. It was a natural process." 

The tape securing the coke to my skin was itching like hell. I tried to scratch around it, explaining my actions by cursing my cheap sweater, it made me think about the real Billy and Susan and how they felt at this point. 

Did you meet the 'real' Susan or Billy? What were they like, it must have been harrowing to hear their stories.


"I did try, valiantly, to find Susan. It turned out that she didn’t exist, so I had to create her from scratch, so to speak. I did later meet Billy Hayes when we did a three-month publicity tour for 'Midnight Express' together.

So, what was he like? 
He is a rather private sort of guy, plus we were both being dragged to so many interviews from dawn to dusk during that three-month stint that we never had time to know one another very well. He later pursued an acting career and has done a considerable amount of work in film and theater. "

If it was just a Hollywood script and not based on a true story, do you think the story  would have changed? Actually, was much changed for Hollywood storytelling benefit?  
 "I think the fact that [it] was a true story made it such a hit publicly and earned it so many honors politically. I’m sure this film would not have done so well were it NOT based on truth. Of course, Susan did not really exist, as I’ve mentioned and I’m not sure if the scene where Billy kills the guard who tries to rape him is true either, at least I doubt the guard was killed in the manner shown in the film. But one part of the film, which was glossed over (which always bothered me) is the gay relationship Billy had while in prison. That relationship is the one thing that saved his life. It’s what gave him grounding and strength through all that he suffered there. Of course I understood the reasons for going “soft” on the gay aspect. In those days AIDS was around the corner and ‘gayness’ was something you didn’t talk about, let alone portraying it in film. But my feeling was and always has been that it was THE LOVE Billy was graced with in that prison which saved him. That should have been more openly portrayed."

I couldn't agree more but these stories of prison made my hands sweat so I quickly changed the subject.


Is it harder portraying a real person, than creating a character? How does it differ?  
"I would say that portraying a real person in life gives an actor more to work from, but depending on who the real person is, it can be just as challenging as creating a character from scratch. Either way, the actor has to immerse himself/herself into becoming someone who is unfamiliar, and there are multiple aspects to ponder while finding that new being. Any character you play demands a physical, mental and spiritual morphing and it’s an all together exhilarating and exhausting process. Any way you look at it, being given the opportunity to work as an actor is an awesome blessing and a gift for those who manage to get onto that merry-go-round."

I looked at the clock, my plane was in an hour, I only had 20 more minutes to check-in if I was going to make this flight. I was so nervous and wondered were there any real nerves during the smuggling scene? It must have been tense to film, knowing what was just about to happen?
 "Yes, I’d say there was a lot of anxiety on Brad Davis’ part when doing that scene. But then, having to play that part was a vexing challenge, no matter how you turn the dice." 



Now everyone knows the iconic scene in the film where Susan visits Billy in jail, I wondered how did you feel about exposing her breasts in such a 'gritty' situation?  
"Ah, well, I admit I had concerns about what my father would think when he saw the film but I’ve always seen my body as a tool for acting, and in real life we spend much of it naked so I was completely on board to do what was needed to bring truth to the picture. The emotions of the situation are what carried me through and helped me to forget about any self-conscious tendencies that might turn up."


And there have been many parodies of that scene, from Jim Carey in 'The Cable Guy' to 'Family Guy'.  Which is your favourite, and how did you find out that there is one? 
"You know, I’ve only heard of and have briefly seen the Jim Cary/Cable Guy parody. I found it interesting, innocuous at best. Finding the humor in anything is an admirable quality, so it’s all good."

What was it like to win the Golden Globe? 
"Being chosen for the part of Susan and then doing the work in the film was heaven on earth for me. I never
expected anything more to come out of making that little film. At the time it was a very low budget (2 million) with no expectation that it would be the huge hit that it was. When the news spread that I was nominated for a Golden Globe, I just thought, “Well, that’s good publicity for the film.” All I can say is that there was a lot that happened that night, some of it nightmarish – as we were about to enter the ballroom I tripped and fell. I was briefly trampled by the mob and wound up on the wrong side of the velvet cord, unable to convince the security guards that I belonged inside." 

God, I thought if she couldn't convince security guards, how the hell was I supposed to?

"David Puttnam and the others in my party were meantime so distracted by the starry attention that they didn’t notice my absence and had no idea that I was trapped outside! Mind you, there was also a last minute technical glitch, preventing the Golden Globe Awards from being aired on Television, so there was sense of disorganized mayhem in the air. But there is silver lining to this story, which includes Lucille Ball. She welcomed me to the stage when I got the award, and having no idea of the ordeal I’d just been through, but sensing at a glance that I was an emotional wreck, she took me into her arms and said, “Don’t worry honey, you just enjoy this moment because it’s all yours baby.” The memory of her warmth and support still gives me strength when I need it."  

Now that is a cool story!!! But I wondered... 

How did it feel being catapulted into worldwide fame when the film was released? 

"It’s a very strange animal, fame. I thought it would catapult my career to great heights and was offered various TV and film work, but what was offered paled in comparison to Midnight Express. I yearned for the artistic depth that had delivered me to this point of my lifeSadly, the kind of projects that were on offer were more dull and less real than my own day to day existence, so I waited for something better aneventually lost momentum. My art, friends and my dog, Mimilakeep me grounded. I’ve never lost the humility of knowing that I’m a real person in world, with wants and needs like everyone else out there, and make no mistake, we are all stars in the vast universe."  

Ain't that the truth! 

Now, You went from Italian saucy comedy to gritty reality. That was a bit of a leap! How do they compare?  
"I think it’s harder to do comedy well and admire those who do it successfully. Indeed, some of the best
comedy comes out of the most gut wrenching parts of our being, so in truth, there is no real difference between the two, except for timing of course. I find superficial comedy an absolute bore and honestly don’t get why they make so much money. Love Monty Python!"

15 minutes left. I stared at the departures board, I could go anywhere, Italy... France... Spain... anywhere. Leading me seamlessly to my next question.

You've lived all over the world, where is your favourite and where do you consider your true Home?  
"ITALY. I adore Italy and always talk about moving there, but Hollywood is where the work keeps me for now. I do miss ‘life’ in Europe, the spontaneity of running into people you know when walking the streets every day, the outdoor cafĂ©’s, the markets, the impromptu dinners and parties with friends and associates, having
everything at your fingertips without having to drive there or plan ahead."

And you've done pretty much every job in the film industry, from directing to costume design, what is your preference?  
"I love it all. As long as I’m being paid to be creative, I’m happy.  Directing has been my focus as of late. Right now I’m developing either a film or mini series about Ovid and his world. More immediately, this summer, I am venturing into documentary – an adventure in itself. There is a crisis brewing here in Los Angeles that centers on an immense facility that since the 1970s has been used to store dangerous amounts of hazardous gasses such as Butane. The place’s age has made it more fragile than ever, and the danger of the chemicals stored there is such that (God forbid) either an earthquake or a terrorist attack could set off a nuclear-scale blast. This threat is directly akin to what you suffered in the 2005 explosion at Buncefield, near Hertfordshire. Local residents are worried but politicians are doing nothing. Imagine if the Japanese people could have headed off the 2010 disaster at Fukushima. That’s how urgently I feel about this, with the hopes that this film can avoid a disaster and bring positive change.

I’m also looking forward to working on a project this fall, a part which is being developed for me in an Indie film by one of the producers of The Canyons – a Noir Fantasy Giallo that satirizes modern Hollywood in a fun and quirky way."  

Who would you love to work with? And are there any films you wish you would have done?  
 "That would be an insufferably long list. There is such a vast pool of talented filmmakers out there today, but let me give you a short list, though I’m sure later I’ll think, damn, why didn’t I mention this director or that actor? 

Here I go: Terrence MalickNeil Jordan, Ang Lee, Agnieszka HollandRalph Fiennes – his directorial debut 'The Invisible Woman' is sublime! Terry Gilliam, Alfonso CuaronLuc BessonBaz Luhrman, and the list goes on... 

Actors I’d love to work with: Mark Strong, Rachel WeiszBill Nighy, Eva Green, Hugh JackmanMads MikkelsenClive Owen, Daniel Day Lewis, Ciaran Hinds, Tony Leung…..and the list goes on. 

I love period pieces. There’s something about dealing with a world where the internet, iPhones and technology don’t exist that excites meMost — if not all! — of the screenplays and treatments I’ve written for myself to direct are set in historical periods, whether it’s Rome, the American frontier, ancient Japan or the 1940s. Perhaps this grows out of my love for beautiful clothes and exotic designs, which I’ve been aware of in myself from earliest childhood. As an actress I’ve always felt at my creative best when becoming a woman of a different epoch. The act of putting on the clothes, finding the accent, creating a world through the part I’m playing — this is where I the fun begins." 

Ok, my time was almost up. What was I going to do? Would I really do this? Was it worth it? The clocks hands ticked by counting down the seconds to either the start or possibly the end of my life as I knew it. One more question maybe.... 

Since Midnight Express, you've mainly stuck with pretty heavy story lines, have you ever been tempted to go back to saucy Italian comedy?  
 "I love to work, and there’s always room for a good saucy Italian comedy, but I do lean towards more serious narratives. I love to laugh as much as anyone, but my passions tend to include stories that provoke the essence of human nature and what forces it to be pulled from the depths, but always with an unusual bent.  

Character driven stories are what sustain my creative juices, with love always being at the core. Edith Piaf always said, “ If you want your song to be a hit, you must sing about love. The same can be said about films. Even the best action pictures have a love story buried in them.  

So many of the filmmakers I admire have been moving over to television, lately. The best period dramas — The Borgias, The Vikings, Mad Men, DaVinci’s Demons— are not in theaters but on TV. Movies in theaters right now are mostly about superheroes. Films about love, about people such as ourselves, are marginalized to the art-houses. This development has me re-thinking my various feature projects — thinking of them not as scripts for single films but as pilots for miniseries." 

I thanked her, this must have been fate I thought - meeting Irene and hearing about her phenomenal life. Life was so full of possibilities, so full of opportunity, why was I risking mine for mere money? As I walked back to the bathroom to remove the tape from my body and flush the drugs, I wished she knew how much I had to thank her for. And I only wished I could have told her.






5 comments:

  1. Irene - Through Retro LadyLand8 June 2014 at 03:55

    BRAVO Charlotte! Love how you’ve woven this piece with your own fantasized narative — really, the most interesting interview I’ve ever done. Very pleased,
    thrilled with it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another fabulous interview... Keep it up... Looking forward to the book!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really interesting interview! Love Irene Miracle! A woman with a big heart and... the prettiest eyes of the cinema ... ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fantastic piece, so cool to know what Irene is doing now as 'Midnight Express' is one of my favourite movies! Brava!

    ReplyDelete
  5. So happy to learn you're well and creative through such a good interview! Miss you, your sense of humour and your friendship so much! Love and smooooches Irene!

    ReplyDelete