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Shirley MacLaine: ’I don’t know anything about acting’


Shirley MacLaine stars with Christopher Plummer in Elsa & Fred, the story of a lonely old man’s emotional reawakening — thanks, of course, to his unexpected romance with an impulsive, high-spirited woman.

Speaking from her home in the mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico, MacLaine chatted candidly — as she’s been known to do — about her new film, how long she wants to live and the day she didn’t give a thought to Anita Ekberg’s “big boobs.”

Bill Newcott: Are you just a couple of convincing actors, or is there real affection between you and Christopher Plummer?

Shirley MacLaine: Oh, we’re good friends. We went to dinner and got drunk every night! [Laughs] We’d already done a picture together ( Closing the Ring, 2007). And my God, have you seen his one-man show? Wow. And he’s two years older than I am! But he did admit he has to get to the theater at four o’clock and rehearse it again. [Laughs]

BN: Any movie that tells a love story about people 70 and over — much less 50 and over — is worth celebrating.

SM: Boy, I agree with you there! By golly, because of the long lives people are living — with pharmaceuticals, unfortunately — we’ve gotta make more movies that address themselves to people over 60. Maybe this movie will help. I find that younger audiences enjoy it maybe more than the older folks do, because they say, “Oh my God! Are my grandmother and grandfather doing that sort of thing? Isn’t that adorable?”

BN: Do people treat you differently as you get older?

SM: It’s funny to me that now, any time I get out of a car, the driver runs around, opens the door and thinks I can’t stand up. It used to bother me, and sometimes I’ll still say, “F--- you! Leave me alone!” Every time I go somewhere, someone’s there with either a wheelchair or an arm. And I’ve just come back from a five-mile hike! [Laughs]

BN: It’s true — we’re all living so long now.

SM: Yes, but the question is do we live longer with quality? We’ll see. The way the world is going today, I don’t know if I want to live until January. [Laughs]

Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer in “Elsa & Fred”

BN: Your character, Elsa, is a pip.

SM: She was the most complicated character I’ve ever played.

BN: Really? You’ve played some mighty complex women. [Among them are Debra Winger’s aging debutante-mom in Terms of Endearment and the conflicted Paris streetwalker in Irma La Douce.]

SM: Oh, yes! Because [Elsa]’s a liar, she’s a cheat, and I could never tell if she knows it. Is it all for fun? It’s all extremely complicated, but what I love is that the audience doesn’t care. They just like the mischief she causes.

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BN: Some actors immerse themselves in a character until they almost become that person. Do you explore a character externally?

SM: I haven’t got a clue. I don’t know anything about acting. I don’t know anything about being the character. I don’t know anything about any of that.

BN: I think you just gave me my headline!

In Elsa & Fred, your character has a fixation on La Dolce Vita [Fellini’s 1960 Italian romance starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg].

SM: Well, first I’ve gotta tell you the story of when I was 21 and having a costume fitting with Edith Head. Anita Ekberg was there too, having a fitting in a leotard. A photographer said, “Why don’t you get up there beside Anita and take the same pose?” And I still have the picture he took.

BN: What were you thinking as you stood there?

SM: Not so much that she’s got big boobs or anything. I was thinking, “How can anyone be so beautiful?”

Elsa and Fred share a “Dolca Vita” moment.

BN: There’s a scene in the new film where you wear a black strapless dress that echoes the one Ekberg wore in La Dolce Vita. That was some dress.

SM: It’s not much fun to wear a strapless, skintight dress at age 80. I thought, “Oh, God — I should’ve gone on a 10-year diet to make this scene work!”

BN: But it’s not really about looking good for your age — it’s about looking good at your age, right?

SM: Yeah, true. [Unconvinced] But I’ve begun to look at it more as a health issue than a presentational issue. It’s much easier to be careful about how much sugar and how many vodkas you have.

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BN: Do you ever run into critters on those five-mile hikes?

SM: Hell, yes. I’ve run into gigantic antlered deer. And two bears.

BN: ???

SM: The bears live on my property, and they’re furious because I lock my trash containers. This one bear gets so angry. He shakes the barrel and shakes it and shakes it, and finally throws it down like he’s having a tantrum. And of course there are coyotes, so I wouldn’t think of letting my rat terriers off the leash.

BN: Even a short hike in the New Mexico mountains can be a workout, right?

SM: Well, it helps that there’s no oxygen here. There’s also no work ethic. [Laughs] Still, I’ve learned that if the fish are jumping and the sun is out, that’s probably a good thing to devote yourself to.


Photos: Millennium Entertainment

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