The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Theresa Russell (“Liz & Dick”)

Theresa Russell has spent far more of her career on the silver screen than the small screen, so when she takes on a TV role, it’s a pretty big deal. Of course, “Liz & Dick” was already destined to be a big deal whether Russell had been cast as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother or not, simply by virtue of Lindsay Lohan playing Liz, but that doesn’t make it any less lovely to see Russell turn up.

With “Liz & Dick” now available on DVD, Russell kindly set about doing a bit of press for the production, and in chatting with Bullz-Eye, she discussed how working alongside Lohan caused her maternal instincts to kick in, revealed how serious funnyman Bill Murray can be, and detailed the good and the bad about her short-lived stint as a series regular on The WB’s “Glory Days.”


Bullz-Eye: I feel like I’m the only TV critic who didn’t get a chance to watch “Liz & Dick” when it originally aired, so I’m glad they sent me a copy of the DVD release in time to watch it before you and I talked.

Theresa Russell: And…? [Laughs.] What did you think?

BE: I enjoyed it well enough.

TR: It’s entertaining, I think.

BE: Well, I tend to enjoy bio-pics in general, if only just to see how a cast and crew decide to tackle the challenge of bringing someone’s life story to the screen.

TR: Yeah. I think Lindsay did a good job. And I didn’t realize that (Elizabeth Taylor’s) mom was so involved her life, either, until doing that, so I thought it was interesting. I actually met Liz. My former husband, Nicolas Roeg, did…I think it was for CBS, but it was Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” with her. She was just a wonderful woman. I even tried on that damned diamond. [Laughs.] She goes, “Here, try it on!” I was, like, “Oh, my God…” We were standing around her pool. I put it on, and the thing was…I’m not a big jewelry person, so I thought it would look like a hunk of glass, but it didn’t. It was beautiful. I mean, looking into it was like looking into infinity. It was unbelievably beautiful. She was a trip, though. She was an amazing woman. She really was special. A special creature.

BE: Presumably you were at least somewhat aware of the way her relationship with Richard Burton was trumpeted to the heavens by the press. Do you have any particular recollections of that coverage?

TR: Well, I was still very, very young when most of it was going on. I remember my mom talking about it a little bit, though. And then when I got a little older, I asked her, “Why did she marry so much?” And she goes, “Well, you know, that’s what happened then: if you went to bed with a guy, you married them.”  I said, “Oh, okay! I guess you’ve got to get married lots of times, then!” [Laughs.] But she was great. One time, I was able to have a long conversation with her—she was actually with Larry Fortensky at the time—and she said that Richard was the love of her life. And that’s sad, really. Sad that they couldn’t figure that out and make it work between them.

BE: In playing Liz’s mother, did you do any research in regards to what Sara Taylor was really like?

TR: Well, I did what I could find. There wasn’t a heck of a lot on her, though. I basically looked online and found the things I could. She was an actress in her own right, for one thing. And she was born in Kansas, believe it or not. I always thought she was English. But, no, she moved to England and married an Englishman, and that’s why Elizabeth was born in England. And having had her own aspirations of being an actress, I guess that’s why she kind of guided Elizabeth into that area. Or it seems like it, anyway. She was a bit of a stage mom, but it doesn’t seem like there was any animosity between them. Not like poor Lindsay having a stage mom. It never seemed like that with Sara and Elizabeth.

BE: And on that note, how was it working with Ms. Lohan? “Liz & Dick” was obviously an attempt at a comeback for her.

TR: Yeah! Y’know what? She is so talented and so smart, and… [Hesitates.] It’s kind of scary and sad, really. She just did not have the tools. Nobody gave her the tools to figure this out. But I was playing her mom, and I also really am a mom, so maybe that’s why I felt even more maternal towards her…? I don’t know, but I was just, like, “Please…” I prayed for her to get it together. I want her to be my age. I want to see what she does in her life. But, y’know, there are times when it’s like being ruled by King Joffrey. [Laughs.] It’s, like, “C’mon, people, tell her what’s happening! Somebody around here be the grown-up!” I thought she did a good job. But sometimes it’s like she works off the drama. Nobody’s ever taught her otherwise, I guess.

BE: You were in your teens when you started acting. Was there every any point where you might’ve gone down a similar road yourself?

TR: Oh, no. [Laughs.] I’m just not that kind of girl. Not that kind of person. But also, I’m sure it makes a difference that I had my mother, and if my mother wasn’t around, then I had my grandmother. We were all very loved and very grounded in that way and knew how to behave. So I had a completely different upbringing. It was totally different.

BE: When you started your film career, it was with no small number of big names around you. Your first film, “The Last Tycoon,” where you co-starred with Robert DeNiro, Tony Curtis, and Robert Mitchum.

TR: Mitchum! I used to love old movies. When I came home from school, I was the oldest of five and had to look after my younger siblings, and…we only had four channels back then, y’know. [Laughs.] But one of them was…I think it was Channel 11 in those days, and it was just nothing but old movies, so that’s what I used to watch. So when (Elia) Kazan brought in DeNiro, I was, like, “Oh, hi,” and blah blah blah or whatever, and when DeNiro left the room, Kazan said, “Do you know who that is?” I said, “Oh, yeah, he’s great, I saw him in ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Taxi Driver.’” He said, “Well, you just seem very relaxed.” I said, “That’s ‘cause I’m more excited about working with Robert Mitchum!” I mean, he was amazing, Robert Mitchum. What a guy. He was such a man. He was great.

BE: You also worked with Bill Murray on “The Razor’s Edge,” before anyone knew he had it in him to be a dramatic actor.

TR: Yeah, that was his first dramatic part. That’s why he wanted to do it, I guess. I adore Bill. I wish I could work with him more. Because then I worked with him years later on “Wild Things.” I love him. I really do! Bill, if you’re out there, I want to work with you again! [Laughs.]


BE: How was he on the film? Did he seem at all out of his comfort zone, given that it was his first dramatic part?

TR: Well, no, but I think that’s because he’s the one who wanted to do it, y’know? That was one of the things he said to the studio. It was, like, “If you want me to do ‘Ghostbusters 2,’” or whatever it was, “then I want to do this!” It was a passion of his. In fact, after that movie, he ended up living in Paris for a long time, kind of going on odd treks of his own around the world. It seemed to change him somehow. But he’s a lovely man, and…well, y’know, it’s what they say, and it’s true, that most comedians really aren’t laughing and making jokes all the time. Not that he’s depressed, but he’s serious. He’s a serious guy. Comedy really is a serious business! But he was really serious about doing “The Razor’s Edge,” too. Not that we didn’t still have fun on the set, of course. But he’s a serious guy.

BE: Even putting “Liz & Dick” into the mix, you still really haven’t done a huge amount of TV work, but you tackled a regular series role in 2002 with “Glory Days” (also known as “Demontown”). It was short-lived, but how was the experience of the weekly-series grind? Did you enjoy it?

TR: Well, y’know, I did and I didn’t. (Executive producer) Kevin Williamson is a wonderful writer, but it got kind of… [Hesitates.] Something happened with the storyline, and he had to change it around because of the…well, I don’t want to go into the details, but, anyway, it was a little bit unfortunate, because it was supposed to have a different tone than it ended up having. So that was kind of a disappointment. For everyone, but mostly for him, I would think. But I loved Vancouver. We were up in Vancouver for the series, and I liked that. So, yeah I did enjoy it, but I also thought that…y’know, they just kill the crews on those things. I just thought, “Why do they do it?” And they’re, like, “Because this how we’ve always done it.” But why do you have to have a different director every week? This takes so much time to break them in and do this thing and that, and the hours just get longer and longer. Why not just have, like, three directors and rotate? I dunno, if I was gonna produce a TV series, I’d do it a lot differently than they do. [Laughs.] I mean, you talk to so many of these crews where these shows go on a long time, and people start getting sick, their marriages break up, they never see their kids…I just think that’s wrong. It’s so hard, y’know? Those kinds of hours are really just crazy hard. And it just seems like you don’t have to do it that way. I mean, I dunno, but it seems like a “save a dime to spend a dollar” situation to me. But other than that, I enjoyed it a lot. It was fun.

BE: Would you venture back to the small screen for a series again?

TR: Oh, sure. I’d love to be in an ensemble. That’d suit me very well. I wouldn’t want to be the lead. [Laughs.] But it’d be fun to be in an ensemble. I’d enjoy that very much.

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

TR: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I loved the films I did with Nic Roeg, y’know? My husband. But those are kind of cultish, and…well, I believe they were ahead of their time. People do bother to go back and look at “Bad Timing” and “Insignificance” and some of the other ones that we did together. Before MTV, that kind of cutting…it was, like, “Oh, it’s so strange! I don’t understand!” Now everybody’s used to that kind of non-linear sort of cutting things. But he was a real…he was an amazing, one-of-a-kind trendsetter. He really was. Is. I mean, he’s still alive! [Laughs.]

BE: I know you’re not in it, but I’ve got a seven-year-old daughter, and I’m just about to introduce her to his film “The Witches.” Not quite, but just about.

TR: Well, yeah, and that’s a terrific film. It really is. But I remember him being in fights with Jim Henson, arguing about the amount of farting. [Laughs.] I was, like, “Are you really? You’re gonna cause a real big problem with the producers and make Jim Henson mad at you because you want the mice, the boys, to fart more?” I mean, come on! That’s the kind of passion you get into when you’re filming, though, I guess. I do, too. But arguing about farting? How many farts and how long they can be, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t…? Okay

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BE: Just to wrap up, in looking at your filmography, there’s one movie that seems very out of your usual wheelhouse: “A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” How did you come to be a part of that production?

TR: Oh, I was living in London—I lived in London for almost 20 years—and it was just something that came up, that came down the pike. But I remember we were were shooting in Prague not very long after the Berlin Wall came down, and it was really amazing.

By the way, before we go, I’ve got two other films coming up. One’s called “Moving Mountains,” which is actually about mountain-top removal, and then there’s “A Winter Rose,” which is sort of an “A Star is Born” kind of thing.

BE: Do you have release dates on either them yet?

TR: No, no release dates yet. But they’re wrapped, so they’ll be out there someday! [Laughs.]


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