No stranger to public broadcasting audiences or to dramas which emphasize malice and foul play, Dame Diana Rigg won an Emmy for her performance as Mrs. Danvers, in the 1997 Masterpiece Theatre production of Rebecca. Along with her duties as regular season host for the award-winning PBS series Mystery!, she'll be returning in a starring role this spring in a fresh round of Mrs. Bradley Mysteries.
It's been some time since you shot this film. Looking back from this perspective, what stands out in your mind about the project?
Well, the director was very keen to capture the spirit of the book, very keen to get it right. I think most of all he wanted it to be fleshed, as opposed to what's quite often the approach to classic books, which is that people tend to sort of drift across the screen, and it's mostly behavior and very little passion. And, in fact, what Henry James wrote about, you know, was the passion underneath behavior.
What attracted you to the role you played, Madame de Bellegarde?
She was such a monster. And she's a testament to the worst kind of snobbery. She's the sort of woman who would not allow life to change because of her grip on the ritual of being an upper-class French woman. And, of course, Newman, the American, comes in -- a new-made man, nouveau riche -- and she's absolutely horrified. He's a breath of fresh air. And there's been no fresh air in the house for decades.
Is James a writer you were familiar with before you did the film?
Not really. I've seen several of the recent film adaptations of his novels, and I read The American on account of doing the film. But no, no, not really.
Based on the films and what you do know of his writing, what do you think he offers a contemporary audience?
I think the subtlety of behavior that he observed with his characters is absolutely masterly. And, of course, the story is also a window into his own personal experience. He wrote the book shortly after visiting France and trying to settle there, and he was made to feel very much a parvenu -- he was made to feel not as civilized as they considered themselves. And I think he got a bit angered by this, and decided to write about it. And the book came about.
Many critics would say that James is usually most interested in the development of his characters' moral sensibilities. Is that what interests you in this story, or is it something else?
Well, playing the part I did, my character doesn't take any kind of moral journey. I'm as bad at the end as I was at the beginning. I just lose my daughter in a fashion which I find -- I'm speaking as Madame de Bellegarde here -- which I find acceptable. I would prefer that she be immured in a convent than find happiness with the American.
What do you think that Madame de Bellegarde would have lost, in her own mind, if Newman had succeeded in marrying her daughter?
She'd have lost her daughter forever. I mean, Claire would have gone to America. And losing her daughter in that fashion, she would have lost face. She would have been marked by society. And she couldn't stand the idea of that.
How do you account for the kind of power Madame de Bellegarde exercises over all her children?
You know, I think the time accounts for a lot, because children in those days could not question their parents to the degree that they do now. It's also her sheer force of personality -- and, very probably, holding the purse strings in the manner that she did. Although there wasn't that much money, she held that power, too.
James originally wrote The American as a serial for an American magazine. Later it was published in England and enjoyed a good success there. Speaking as a modern European, how convincing do you find his characterization of both the American and the Europeans? How realistic would Newman and the Bellegardes have appeared to Europeans in James's own day?
They seem to be completely polarized. I mean, the American is everything that we would like. He's an entrepreneur, he's made his own money, he's open-minded. He's a gentleman. And he's faced with this wall of history and ritual and snobbery. I think James stacks the chips pretty heavily in favor of the American. I think in a way he does slightly caricature the French, but not the American-- no, not him. I think he liked him a lot.
It's not hard to see why his heroine, Claire de Cintré, would be attracted to Newman, the breath of fresh air and the hope of freedom, but what do you think Newman sees in her?
Ah. I think he's responding to a trapped bird, if you like, a caged bird, and a very beautiful one. I think he also responds to an instinct within him that senses a passionate woman there, and the passion never having had any expression. And I think he so disapproves of how she's expected to behave, under the circumstances. I mean, to him, it's an anathema. And also, I think he senses the tragedy in her background, you know, that first marriage, the first forced marriage. And I think he really, really feels that he could free her and show her true love.
Who do you think are the most interesting characters in the story?
I think the French are the most interesting, certainly to understand and to play -- that repression, the narrow-mindedness of these people. Generation after generation, they have believed that the blood line is all that matters and that status is all that matters and that manners are all that matters. And I think that gradually, over the years, they've become fossilized, and I find that rather interesting.
For you, personally, what was the biggest challenge in the film?
Well, I wasn't interested in the audience's sympathy, because that would have been the wrong road to go up, but I wanted to make Madame de Bellegarde explicable in her context. I wanted the audience, even if they don't approve of the way she behaves, to understand why she behaves as she does. She didn't know anything else, and she was fearful of the unknown, and the American was the unknown.
You've had the opportunity during your career to play a great many villains as well as heroines. Do you have a preference?
Villains every time.
Oh, they're just meatier, much meatier.
You've also had the chance, with your extraordinary classical training and the work you've done on stage and film, to portray a great many historical characters -- some fictional, some not -- and a great range of historical eras. At this point, if you had the opportunity to open up a particular era or a particular historical masterpiece for a modern audience, what would you choose?
Well, I'd probably go quite a long way back. I'll tell you what I'd examine. I think you must have seen I, Claudius back in the '70s? [editor's note: I, Claudius premiered on Masterpiece Theatre in November of 1977.] Well, there's a historian called Suetonius [editor's note: b. 69 C.E.; d. sometime after 122 C.E.], who wrote a fascinating book, Lives of the Caesars. I'd love somebody to open that up, and I'd love to play Agrippina, who was Nero's mother.
Do you have any immediate projects in the works that you think our audience would be interested in?
Projects. No, not immediately. I'm going to Bali for Christmas, and then I'm going to India for the New Year.
That's an adventure we'd find interesting as well. However, while you're on the other side of the world for New Year's, we'll be here, enjoying the American premiere of your performance in The American. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.