Greta Scacchi

‘Women didn’t like me when I was a sex symbol’

What can it be like being Greta Scacchi? In the Eighties and early Nineties she enjoyed – if enjoyed is the right word – huge fame as a film star, winning awards and critical acclaim, but she never seemed comfortable with her image as a sex symbol – one who didn’t seem to mind taking her clothes off on screen – and in due course she turned her back on Hollywood in order to be taken more seriously as a stage actress.

In her private life, meanwhile, she seemed to go from one controversy to another, which is why she doesn’t like to talk about “that stuff” in interviews. But today she is finding her personal life a hard subject to avoid because she is in the middle of rehearsals for Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and, well, let her explain…

“The play resonates with me personally because it’s about the predicament of a single working mother with two children. When it was written [in 1944] that was a rare thing. Single mothers would be ostracised. Amanda, the character I play, is fearful that her children will repeat the destructive patterns of…” She checks herself. “Having children growing up who remind her of the absent father…”

Scacchi with her partner Carlo Mantegazza
Scacchi with her partner Carlo Mantegazza

She has seen where this is going. That “her” could equally be a “me”. Scacchi was three when her father, an Italian art dealer, walked out on her mother, an English dancer. And Scacchi’s daughter was six months old when her father, the American actor Vincent D’Onofrio, deserted her. It was a painful episode in her life and she more or less became a recluse for four years afterwards. She subsequently had another child, a son, with her first cousin, Carlo Mantegazza, which caused much media excitement and, though it was perfectly legal, was disapproved of by her family. Her personal life is complicated. And it is understandable that she doesn’t like to “go there”.

Scacchi has a way of smiling while she is talking that is almost as disconcerting as the way she directs her cold blue stare at you. Trying to ignore both, I move on to safer ground, and note how often parents wait for their children to grow up before getting a divorce. But then it happens again: “I know, I know,” she says. “I remember when… No, I’m not going to tell you about my personal stuff. The question is this: is a 19-year-old more resilient to the divorce of his parents than a 10-year-old? I don’t think you can make up rules, because whatever you do you’re going to f— things up.”

Femme fatale: Scacchi made her name in White Mischief
Femme fatale: Scacchi made her name in White Mischief

There is another parallel between the play and Scacchi’s life I want to explore. Amanda, the faded Southern belle she plays, has a complicated relationship with her children, even coming to resent them. Scacchi’s relationship with her children has not been complication-free either. Her daughter changed her surname when her school friends started Googling it and found themselves directed towards websites specialising in clips of celebrities in the nude.

What advice does she give her daughter? “I’ve given up! I don’t give advice.”

Really? “Actually she’s 23 now and much more interested in what I have to say to her. Much more respectful. I learnt that there is this maternal urge – love is too broad and overused a word, it is more a genuine care and concern – but it expresses itself in a clumsy and sometimes hurtful way. I remember through my daughter’s teenage years having so much I wanted to say and knowing that I had to bite my tongue and wait.”

When I ask what advice she would give her 23-year-old self, if she could meet her, there is a long pause. “Don’t know…” Another dramatic pause. “Don’t know.”

Scacchi in the Merchant Ivory film Heat and Dust
Scacchi in the Merchant Ivory film Heat and Dust

In 1983, at the age of 23, Scacchi shot to fame when she played a sultry femme fatale in the Merchant Ivory film Heat and Dust. After that came other sultry femme fatale roles, notably in White Mischief (1987).

So what about her film career? Any advice for her younger self there? “I would say don’t spend so much energy worrying about being typecast. If there is a hook, run with it. Then once you have gathered experience playing the femme fatale, you can use it as a platform for other things. I was so self-conscious about it, I kept turning down films which repeated that male fantasy thing.”

Are we talking about Basic Instinct here, a role she rejected? “That was very much to do with that. There was no way I could have coped with playing that role [which went to Sharon Stone]. I didn’t like the script and didn’t want to play a character who was essentially a male heterosexual’s lesbian fantasy. I thought that offensive.”

So no regrets when it became a blockbuster? “No, funnily enough.”

Although she says she wanted to do European art films instead, and had no interest in doing “commercial Hollywood stuff”, she did co-star with Harrison Ford in Presumed Innocent (1990), and succumbed to the usual demands from the director that she get her kit off. How did she find working with a star of his stature? “He was quite shy, actually. All crooked grins and one-word answers.”

After that she landed a part opposite Tim Robbins in Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated The Player. The director told her to “take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do” but this time she refused and won. Did she feel bullied by male directors? “Some of them were bullies. You are very much at their mercy.”

I imagine her background was quite liberal and bohemian. Presumably she was relaxed about nudity? “Yeah, I didn’t have a hang-up about nudity. I felt like I learnt a lot about different cultures in the way some of my work was responded to: the French, as long as my lipstick was perfect, were very relaxed about my nudity, the Italians would give you a standing ovation every time you flashed something, but the British were very uptight. They found the nudity titillating.”

Years of intermittent work, mostly on stage and television, followed her rejection of Hollywood, and then, in 2013, she finally fulfilled an ambition to do Shakespeare, when Jonathan Miller cast her as Regan in King Lear at the Old Vic.

Scacchi in rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie
Scacchi, centre, in rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie

To her great credit, Scacchi more or less looks her age, which is 55. Unlike other film stars of her generation, she has eschewed plastic surgery and often, as today, she faces the world without make-up. She seems comfortable in her own skin, then, and tells me she has no superstitions and doesn’t suffer stage fright.

But I don’t get the impression that the fame of her youth brought her much happiness. She certainly didn’t enjoy being a sexual fantasy figure to men. “I found it strange. But now I’m older it can be helpful. Women go into that paranoid phase where they feel invisible. People are not normally going to imagine a 55-year-old woman without her clothes on, but with me they project, they’ve got a certain memory, I suppose.” She covers her face in mock horror. “I don’t know why I said that! Lets not talk about this stuff.”

Scacchi, who speaks four languages fluently, describes herself as restless, independent and a feminist who found it insulting to be defined by her good looks when she was a young actor. “I consider myself to be an analytical person and so have always found it uninteresting to worry about my appearance. Probably I should worry about it more.”

She has no interest in writing a memoir, either, “though some of the stories I could tell you about Hollywood you would find horrifying”. I get the impression that one of the reasons she enjoys being herself more now than “then” is that women like her more.

This comes up when I ask how “the sisterhood” reacted to her in the days when magazines routinely described her as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Did she inspire envy?

“I’m enjoying these later years much more now that that thing has subsided. I think it was there [the envy]. There was a point when I could have done with more support from women. There was a phase when I thought, women don’t like me.” She rocks back in her chair. “But let’s not talk about this. Let’s get back to the play.”