Greta Scacchi rests her elbows on the table, cups that still-exquisite oval face in her hands and ponders what she calls life’s ‘lovely harmony’.
‘You get to a certain age and you see how things come full circle,’ she muses.
She is talking about playing Countess Natalya Rostova in the BBC’s 2016 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the epic story of the trials and tribulations of three Russian families around the time of Napoleon’s invasion in the early 1800s. The last version was broadcast in 1972 when Greta was 12. She was gripped by it.
‘Something clicked inside. I knew that I wanted to act already, but Anthony Hopkins [who played one the series’ leading characters, Pierre Bezukhov] mesmerised me. I realised “Aha! There is a way to make the audience feel that you’re not saying lines, that this hasn’t been practised and rehearsed.”’
She pauses, mesmerised once again. The eyes that glowed from the film poster of White Mischief – Greta’s racy 1987 starring vehicle – are piercing blue.
‘There’s a moment where [Hopkins] is taken in by some weird cult, they put a blindfold on him and there’s this little hesitation in his hands as he goes up to touch it. A tiny little thing, but my memory of it is so vivid.
‘That tells you something, I think, about how we experienced things in those days,’ she continues. ‘If I’m to get on to my old person’s high horse and talk about what the youth of today don’t know, there’s something about the way that everything is recorded that messes with our memory – we get used to the idea that you have to have a photo to remember anything.’
Greta is full of these kinds of mellow contemplations. We meet in London over tea and marmalade toast, and she tacks from wistful to breezy and back again. But she is always eloquent. Words are important to her – brought up by Italian and English parents who moved her first to Perth, Western Australia, then to East Sussex, she speaks three languages. She has also been taught to project in the theatre and notes with distaste how diction has become devalued in the modern world. ‘It’s mutated so much. Young people say words like “good” and “work”, and they’re using only one vowel sound. Pidgin English from all over the world is blended together to form an international language. Real English will be lost.’
But though she may be a stickler for standards, Greta is no grump. She was delighted that War and Peace, a book that meant so much to her growing up, enjoyed a retelling for a new generation.
‘I think teenagers will loved it for the same reasons it meant so much to me. It was something about the tension and excitement of glimpsing someone at a ball who wants to ask you to dance; then he’s going off in his uniform and there are these terrible battles. There’s a lot more testosterone than in an Austen.’
Greta was famous as an alluring young siren in the likes of major movies such as 1990’s Presumed Innocent and The Player (1992), but in War and Peace played not the romantic lead but the matriarch. ‘I’m the old mother back home – I wave a lot of hankies!’ When Napoleon’s armies take Moscow, Natalya and her husband Ilya (Ade Edmondson) have to leave in a hurry. ‘She becomes pretty hysterical and intolerable, because she comes from a lower class but married well and it’s important to her have things that her children will inherit – that they marry well, too. There’s a little bit of the Mrs Bennet about her.’
Tolstoy’s novel is as famous for being a hulking doorstop as it is for being a masterpiece: the original BBC 1972 War and Peace ran to 20 episodes. The BBC's offering starred There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano playing Pierre Bezukhov and Lily James (Lady Rose from Downton Abbey and the titular lead in Disney’s recent Cinderella) as the young heroine Natasha Rostov, Greta’s onscreen daughter. Thirty years ago, Greta was the up and coming starlet, her picture on every magazine cover. Did she offer Lily advice?
‘That would just be very annoying and I don’t get asked for it very much, I have to say! Lily was quite magnificent dealing with all that stuff that I remember – long hours, early morning calls. She was very gracious with no fuss, always ready. These young actresses are so much better equipped and professional than in my day. Much more businesslike and aware, because they’ve spent years watching young actors [on TV] doing interviews or turning up for red carpet dazzle in fancy frocks.’
It was very different for Scacchi when one of her early films, comedy The Coca-Cola Kid, was in competition at the 1985 Cannes film festival. Clint Eastwood’s film Pale Rider had been chosen to open the festival and Greta’s producers informed her with glee that she had been chosen to accompany him up Le Marché on opening night. Greta had other ideas.
‘I was with my boyfriend and thought “That’s disgusting. Surely Clint Eastwood can find his own girlfriend? What are you saying? I don’t want to look like his tart.” I didn’t realise that’s exactly what one should be doing.’
Eventually, she relented but turned up in a pair of flip-flops, a T-shirt and a cotton skirt from Warehouse. ‘The waitresses looked smarter than me. I felt like the scullery maid.’
That wasn’t what Hollywood thought, though, nor males the world over. After her breakthrough in the romantic drama Heat and Dust in 1983, for a decade Greta Scacchi was box-office dynamite. But in 1992 she had a daughter, Leila, with the actor Vincent D’Onofrio, after which their relationship soon collapsed and she moved to East Sussex on her own with her baby.
‘I thought I had made it when I was 32. I thought that I was well established enough to keep things going on my terms; that I could take a year off to settle my daughter into Sussex and stuff, but then I found that it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to keep reminding the industry. It has a very short memory.’
Greta had a second child, Matteo, with her partner, her partner Carlo Mantegazza, in 1998, and while still working in film, theatre and TV, for more than 20 years, her career took something of a back seat to her domestic life and raising children.
But life has recently become what Greta calls a mixture of endings and new beginnings. Matteo left home – Leila lives in America – and that left her with a great sense of loss. ‘It’s the fact that your children have gone to the other side of the world and, even though they’ve only got to move a finger now – and they do it so well – they don’t bother to answer your emails, and that sort of thing. It’s something a lot of my girlfriends are going through, and it can get you down.’
Around the same time, Greta’s father died. ‘I still find the idea of the people around you, who made you feel loved and secure, shuffling off this mortal coil, really hard to get my head around. I don’t have religion, really, to help me, so I have to try and grasp some sort of structure of my own to help myself get used to that.’ To add to the upheaval, she recently moved from Sussex to London.
But Greta has found that getting older brings positive opportunities, too. She recalls reading to her children and promising herself that at a later stage in life she would turn her attention to the books she wanted. ‘I thought, “You relish what’s going on right now, and then, when the kids leave, you can read Dostoyevsky”.
‘But it’s just amazing to do things spontaneously. To decide, “Oh look, something’s on at the cinema” and just rush off without a mountain of organisation to get there.’
She is inspired by her elderly mother, who whilst caring for a husband with Parkinson’s disease, still managed to go tap dancing twice a week. Meanwhile, career opportunities have arisen in middle age where she thought there might be only closed doors.
‘It’s been the best part of 20 years and now, suddenly, I can come back, but in a different guise. Because with the changes in roles I can play, for my age group, it means that there are, in some ways, a broadening of possibilities of character.’
‘That’s what was really nice with the Countess,’ Greta continues, head once again framed by her hands. ‘I can afford not to have to be the beautiful one, the slender one. You know, all of that is no longer a pressure. It’s liberating, in a way.
‘When you just accept who you are and how you’ve changed, you start looking ahead, not behind.’
Greta's health and beauty tips
Force yourself to take exercise
Like most people, I really battle with this. If you are feeling at all low about yourself, how do you drag your body to the gym? But you know that you’ll be lifted up by it, so you just have to do it!
Eat sensibly but don’t stress it
We read all this stuff about what we’re supposed to eat and not eat, but I’m not that strict about it.
I eat healthily, but I love food. I wouldn’t be having fast food, though, except when I really need that bag of chips when I come out of the theatre, say and when there’s nothing else to eat. I also recommend a baggy sweater.
Keep skincare sensible
I put some moisturiser on my face and that’s it - I never choose one brand in particular.
Usually I buy such things at the airport or on an aeroplane, because I never go shopping. I’ve got girlfriends who laugh at me for being so out of touch with what the latest lotions and potions are.
Does your moisturiser work?
Have a dance
My mum is still dancing and I traipse along when I can. She’s off showing me what to do, just like she did when I was a child. It’s good exercise and we love our time together.
Come dancing for health and fitness
Feed your soul as well as your body
I’m so thrilled that my daughter, who lives in LA, is discovering the local canyons and walks.
When I was in LA, nobody walked anywhere. I did go exploring the canyons and, though I didn’t have anyone to go with, just being close to nature somehow makes you feel better.
Nine ways to turn your walk into a workout