Jacqueline Bisset tries to be discerning when it comes to choosing film projects. "If you want a career that doesn't date badly, you have to find things that aren't too trendy," she says. "If you want to get hot, you do things that are trendy."
Over the last 30 years, Bisset has built an impressive career working with such heavyweight directors as Sidney Lumet ("Murder on the Orient Express"), Francois Truffaut ("Day for Night"), Peter Yates ("Bullitt," "The Deep"), John Huston ("Under the Volcano") and George Cukor ("Rich and Famous").
These days she's busier than ever. Considered one of cinema's great beauties, the British actress currently is starring with Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire in Claude Chabrol's delicious French thriller "La Ceremonie," which was recently named best foreign film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Bisset, a seemingly ageless 52, also stars in "End of Summer," airing Feb. 2 on Showtime, as a gentle, repressed spinster living in 19th century New York. And she'll be seen later this year on the big screen as a sophisticated 16th century courtesan in Marshall Herskovitz's "Venice."
Linda Yellen, who directed Bisset in "End of Summer," says "there's something classic and timeless about Jackie. It's interesting off screen too--the way she dresses and the way she lives."
Bisset does exude a timeless elegance in person. Her airy Benedict Canyon home is warm and comfortable. Whippet-slim, she's dressed in a simple tailored white blouse with rust-colored jeans. In fact, she doesn't look much different than when she first took Hollywood by storm in such movies as 1968's "The Detective" and "Bullitt." Resting at her feet is her dog Scruffy, who looks as if he stepped out of "The Lady and the Tramp."
It was her French agent, Bisset said, who recommended her to Chabrol for the role of Catherine, a fashionable, upper-class woman who hires whom she believes is the perfect housekeeper (Bonnaire) for the family's country chateau. Trouble ensues, however, when against Catherine and her husband's (Jean-Pierre Cassel) wishes, the housekeeper strikes up a friendship with the local postmistress (Huppert) who hates the upper class.
Bisset said she didn't mind playing the third lead behind Huppert and Bonnaire because "it was a good story and it's a good director."
Besides, she added, Catherine "is not an easy part to do. There is nothing showy to do. It's easier to do the showy stuff than the subtle stuff."
The actress also was drawn to the fact "La Ceremonie" would film in the north of Brittany in France. As an 8-year-old, Bisset had spent a two-week vacation at the same location.
"I have good memories of it," she said warmly. "There used to be markets with live animals in baskets and enormous pieces of butter. I thought it would be nice to go there."
Bisset enjoyed working with Chabrol, who is called France's Alfred Hitchcock. "He loves food and he's very jokey," she said.
Still, she added, "he goes really fast with very few takes. It was difficult for me because it was in French."
Though Bisset speaks fluent French and has appeared in several French productions, she says acting in the language is "another issue."
"I tend these days not to be nervous [when I act]," she said. "I feel quite ready for whatever. I felt ready, but when I learned there would be no rehearsal [I became nervous]. Families in France all speak on top of each other. They speak fast and this was a family who had been together for a long time. I found my voice was coming up higher and I had the impression I wasn't doing what I wanted to do."
But, she said, Chabrol thought her nervousness produced a vulnerability in her character that he liked. "Eventually I got used to it," Bisset said. "The first week I was frightened."
Until these recent projects, Bisset had acted sporadically during the 1990s. "It just worked out that way," she said. "There have been times when I have been emotionally more tied up than other times and wanted to be more private.
"There are other times when I couldn't find anything and other times when I was willing to pick up my suitcase and travel."
Bisset acknowledged that it's difficult to find good roles for actresses her age, but added that ageism is nothing new and believes stars' careers last longer now than during the golden age of Hollywood.
"I think the cinema has always been a young person's business," Bisset said. "It's not just true of Hollywood, but Europe too. There have been great [European] actresses to get the odd roles like Jeanne Moreau, but generally speaking a lot of what [films are] about is young sexuality I think, whether it be male or female. People nowadays are working much older. It's better in a sense."
Yellen says she's eager to see audience reactions to Bisset's performance in "End of Summer." Yellen pursued the actress for the part because "it's always so interesting when you kind of cast somebody against type. The idea of the eternally beautiful and glamorous Jacqueline Bisset as an old maid. I think it's interesting in and of itself."
Yellen found Bisset to be an "extraordinary good actress. People, when you mention her, the first thing that comes into their minds is her great beauty. What's so marvelous about her is that's she's not conscious of her beauty."
Bisset doesn't know what's next for her. She's never been one to make plans. "I can't understand people who want to know six projects in advance what they are doing," she said. "Also, you don't know how you are going to feel. A film changes you. I am very changed by each project I do. I feel a growth, whether I had a good time or hadn't. I feel just different."