Agutter’s career as an actress came about through luck, chance and took its time in developing. “I was in ballet school studying dance and I had no intention to act. Walt Disney was making a TV-film about the Royal Danish Ballet (Ballerina) and I was screen tested,” she remembers. She thought she was testing for a role as the grande dame wrote her parents as such. In reality, they were testing her for a smaller role and her head mistress confided to her parents that her chances were slim. Agutter beat the odds and made her film debut at 11.
“I was seen by an agent who knew that a film (East of Sudan) was going that needed a girl. The part was a young Arab girl but they cast me because they needed someone light… the girl had to be carried around a lot. So it wasn’t very serious at the start and the main question at the time was would it take away much time from school,” she says.
Time came to make a choice between acting or dancing and the choice came easily. “Having been introduced to acting and having enjoyed it so much, I felt it was something that I wanted to continue with. At a certain age you are either going to follow through and be a dancer or not. You cannot do ballet half-heartedly. It’s either something you stick to or you decide you’re not going in that direction. And I pretty well knew I was not going to be dedicated to dancing,” she says. Does she miss it? Not really, comes the reply. “I keep in shape with dance exercises and I enjoy all the discipline ballet has given me. It’s given me enormous discipline, I think, mentally and physically.”
Agutter came to television audiences as Kirsty in the twice-weekly BBC series The Newcomers. The character Kirsty was the daughter of the new managing director of Eden Brothers, the fictional firm that was at the centre of the series. Agutter could appear only during school holidays. At this stage of her career, she was listed in credits as Jennifer. In 1968, she was featured in the lavish big-budget 20th Century Fox film musical Star! with Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence. In that motion picture, Agutter played Lawrence’s neglected daughter Pamela. Later, she played Roberta in a BBC adaptation of The Railway Children (1968) and played the same part in Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 film of the book. She followed this with a more serious role in the thriller I Start Counting (1969). She also won an Emmy as supporting actress for her television role as Fritha, in a British television adaptation of The Snow Goose (1971).
“Did we get in trouble for going clubbing during the shoot? Well, Sally (Thomsett, Agutter’s co-star) has embellished this story in the most extraordinary way! [The director] Lionel Jeffries was very paternal on set and created an atmosphere of Edwardian family life, into which Sally, who was 21, and myself at 17 fitted as children. He used to give us two and six if a shot went well (laughs). One evening we went out to some club or something and came back at midnight and Jeffries was sitting in the hall of the hotel. He looked at his watch, looked at us and said, ‘Well, I hope you’re going to know your lines tomorrow,’ and got up and walked off. I don’t think we got two and six the following day.
It was lovely to revisit The Railway Children (in the 2000 Carlton Television adaptation) because I got to play the same character as a child and a grown-up. By the time I played her as a mother, I was a mother myself and hearing someone go through the same thing I’d done just felt right. It was a lovely opportunity.” The Railway Children (1970)
Agutter moved into adult roles, beginning with Walkabout (1971), playing a teenaged schoolgirl lost with her younger brother in the Australian outback. She auditioned for the role in 1967, but funding problems delayed filming until 1969. The delay meant Agutter was 16 at the time of filming, which allowed the director to include nude scenes. Among them was a five-minute skinny-dipping scene, which was cut from the original US release. She said at the 2005 Bradford Film Festival at the National Media Museum that she was shocked by the film’s explicitness, but remains on good terms with director Nicolas Roeg.
“I haven’t seen Walkabout for a few years but when I look at it now and I find it very bleak. Very extraordinary but very sad. It’s like the end of something remembered and lost, that you can never have again, and that’s very much to do with Nic [Roeg]. All his films are about alienation and losing what one has. Did I have a name for ‘The Girl’ in my head? (Thinks) In many ways, I wasn’t creating a character outside myself: I was 16, we were in the Outback In a way and it was very much to do with my own journey. In a way she was Jenny.
Was Nicolas Roeg also paternal as a director? Yes, in a different kind of way [to Lionel Jeffries]. He draws you in and then you’re not quite sure what you’ve got out of it (laughs). In retrospect, the images he talked about became the film he created. There’s so many visual layers to it because Nic knew Australia really, really well. He knew exactly what he wanted to get out of the relationships, out of the place. It was an extraordinary adventure. I’ve seen more of the Outback than most Australians. The snakes? It’s not just snakes, everything in Australia wants to kill you! The tiniest spiders will destroy you.” Agutter on Walkabout (1971)
Underage fame was fine, she says. “One moment you’d be everyone’s favorite and another moment no one would know who you were,” she says. “I realized that it was very transitory and very ephemeral. A lot of children in films get treated like the whole weight of the work lies on their shoulders. It doesn’t.”
Walkabout eventually led Agutter to some other roles, but she found herself pictured by people as an adolescent, even when she was nearing 21. She was fortunate to have just moved to Los Angeles when her agent mentioned Logan’s Run. “They had been looking for someone for a long time but they hadn’t found anyone. They had already cast Michael York and they were looking for someone complementary to him and the rest of the cast. I was suggested to [director] Michael Anderson by my agent but he said ‘No, she’s too young’, obviously thinking of Walkabout.”
The meeting between Agutter and Anderson was arranged, she screen-tested and in 1976, she made her first major American film appearance since she was 13. She had grown up a lot in those eight years.
As Jessica, Agutter learns about the world outside of the dome she has lived in all her life. She is also a fugitive, being tracked down by the Sandmen, police force; almost turned into an ice statue and has her life threatened repeatedly. “It was certainly a fascinating thing to be in; the technical aspect made it so,” Agutter says happily. “It was not a great role to play…I just saw it again on television,” she laughs. “I think I could have done a lot more with that role now.”
As for working with detailed special effects and blue screen shots, she adds, “Sometimes they make it more difficult; when you’re playing scenes with a blue screen as opposed to having anything there. Only later do you get to see what they put in.”
“I wasn’t keen on the wardrobe but it was part and parcel of the film so you couldn’t remove that. But I was not enamoured of the costume. That bearskin was very scratchy, but one of the worst weeks was spending an entire week shooting in a sewerage plant in Los Angeles. All I did was run down corridors, get sprayed with water so my little green outfit was wet, and shouting ‘No!’ and ‘Help!’. That was the whole week. But it was great fun to do, mainly because of Michael Anderson who was so enthusiastic. He was like a child on set, making it fun. Agutter on Logan’s Run (1976)
She made Equus (1977) and The Riddle of the Sands in England (1979). Riddle, she says, is a wonderful movie that she hopes will one day find an American distributor. Also Dominique (1978), a thriller directed by Michael Anderson and produced by Milton Subotsky. “It’s a psychological thriller and the role that I play was the sister of a girl who disappears; actually one thinks that she is murdered. The plot unravels after that. There’s an element of the supernatural in that too. That was quite fun,” she says.
“It was an odd one to do because we were all working for a long period of time – about three months – and a lot of scenes were quite separate, so maybe people felt it wasn’t cohesive. But I think (John) Sturgess was an extraordinary director. The Eagle Has Landed was a very good story and a good film. It was summer and I remember Wimbledon was on when were shooting a lot of scenes and it was quite hard to get Michael Caine out of his caravan because he watching the tennis.
It was fun a set to be on. Donald Sutherland is quite serious about stuff and wanted to work on the dialogue and bring things that he felt were strong in the book. It’s one of the big difficulties about filmmaking, because by the time the film [gets underway], you kinda have to go with the script you have. Once you start to deviate from the script on a thriller, you have trouble putting it together afterwards. With a thriller, you have to be very careful about how it’s all threaded together.” The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
She has also done a film version of James Herbert’s novel, The Survivor (1981), currently in the editing stage in England. American distribution has not yet been arranged. Although she finished working on the film over a year ago, she has yet to see a rough cut of the finished film. “It’s difficult to talk about,” she admits, “because I have seen nothing of it. You know how it is with editing and things. I have no idea how they put it together. I would love to see it I must say, though it might end up complete gibberish, you can never tell. It’s very, very frustrating working without seeing a completed film. That’s one of the difficult things about doing anything independent, you never know when they’re going to end up or where.”
In The Survivor, Agutter plays Hobbs, a psychic who is controlled by spirits, good and evil, to help an airplane pilot (Robert Powell) find out who caused an airplane to explode. Hobbs is originally a man’s role in the novel and in the film she says there isn’t a masculine thing about him. “It’s quite different from the book,” she adds. “Since it was written for a woman, I played it that way. The part was a good one. I haven’t read the book at all although I had the feeling he tried to pack too much into it.”
Agutter talks about the movie and the way the supernatural horror grows from the real horror at the film’s beginning. “The film begins with a plane crash. If you can imagine a jumbo jet going down it could be the most horrific experience to go through. If you think about the amount of horror in that experience-they’ve built upon that. It’s haunted, but you don’t know if it’s mass hysteria or actual spirits, or a premonition of what’s to come.”
John Landis keeps the energy on a set very, very high. Sometimes when you leave the set, it can die and you can see a film where there’s no energy to any of the scenes. [Landis] doesn’t want you to leave the set. He wants you to stay and he keeps things going all the time. You’ll do a sequence and he won’t cut, he’ll say, ‘Go back and do it again.’ Which is a nightmare for continuity and editing, but he’ll capture something extraordinary. He’s very good at watching actors and knowing when something works and something doesn’t.” American Werewolf in London (1981)
American Werewolf seems to have been a cult movie its entire lifetime. How did you come to be involved in it?
Jenny Agutter: I first knew about it some years before it was made, because I’d met John Landis and his wife Deborah in Los Angeles. I knew he was a huge movie fan and knew everything about every film ever made. He said, “I’m gonna make this film, American Werewolf!” so I knew its whole background before I got presented with a script.
How did Landis communicate his vision to his actors?
Jenny Agutter: I think he had a hard time trying to find exactly the right young men, because he identified very strongly with the David part himself. It’s particularly hard to find someone who’s like you, but he really did discover someone good in David Naughton. And Griffin Dunne. He obviously felt all the characters were right. It has to do with ingredients, really. It doesn’t always matter that the actor knows precisely what you’ve got in your mind as director, because they might give something slightly different, but it’s still going to lead to the same end. And also, you can use what they’re doing. The obvious example is the end of American Werewolf. I very much got the comedy that was in there the juxtapositions of the absurd against the real, the frightening against hysterically funny situations. One of them was at the very end of the film. It’s a most moving and awful moment. The werewolf appears in the shadows and then the character I play, the nurse, declares her love for the boy she knew. I was not quite clear how all this was going to work in the editing. I remember saying to John, “At the end there, am I talking to David?” because a moment later you see the boy on the ground-the werewolf has been shot. And he said, “Through the shadows, you see David. You’re talking to David.”
So I shouted, “I love you!” into this shadowy area, and of course, when the film was edited, what you see is this person going, “I love you!” and then this creature going grir-snarrlll! So it’s both awful and funny. John wanted me to be absolutely honest. The comedy doesn’t work if you’re not completely sincere about something. I didn’t have to understand what he was doing, but I understood the nature of the film he was making. One is just a tool in that.
Your character, Alex Price, brings humanity to the story. She’s the film’s conscience-a lovely girl who’s just unfortunate enough to fall in love with a werewolf.
Jenny Agutter: I think a lot of women have been in that situation…where the guy’s not quite what they seem (laughs)!
There’s genuine chemistry between you and David Naughton. How was your interplay on set?
Jenny Agutter: That’s just because of a well written balance between two people who are very alien to one another, in a way. He’s an American, so they’re from different cultures. There’s this sense of these two different people being intrigued by one another. David was good fun. I do remember him getting quite drunk for the scene in bed (laughs). He had to have a beer to feel more comfortable about the whole thing. Scenes like that are really not very comfortable to do. You’ve got a camera crew standing around, and they’re not the slightest bit romantic. Or sexy. Or anything. They’re just a crew, and you’re under a sheet or whatever. So David felt the best way to relax was to get quite drunk, which kind of added its own element, I guess.
There’s a Sherlockian feel to John Woodvine’s character, Dr. Hirsch, as he goes on his journey of discovery. He keeps the beat of the movie while the two of you are having your love affair.
Jenny Agutter: Yes, and that’s classic stuff, isn’t it? In horror movies, there’s always somebody who knows that these awful, dark things are happening and has to find out why. He’s a very serious actor. Primarily, David and John were the only two people I interacted with.
How much time did you spend with Griffin Dunne?
Jenny Agutter: I spent a lot of time with him sitting in the makeup chair next to me. It was gross! It was absolutely disgusting! To arrive at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and he’d been there an hour already and looked absolutely revolting as they were putting this torn flesh across his face… And he’d get worse every day as the film progressed. You certainly didn’t want to have breakfast with him or hang out with him. He was a very lonely person (laughs)!
Another highpoint is in Trafalgar Square, where David is completely out of control. Was that shot guerrilla-style?
Jenny Agutter: Yeah, we had to. The trouble was that in such a public area, you’re not really given permission to either stop traffic or film. You’re kind of on the run from the police, as it were, shooting with cameras. It had to be done very fast. And all the stuff in Piccadilly Circus was shot in two places. They recreated it for the end sequence where they had the crash, because of course they couldn’t do that at Piccadilly Circus without hitting the news. It wouldn’t work. So they actually built it somewhere out in the sticks. But we had to do a lot at the actual place. It was very, very well-organized. They had a number of cars lined up and they would drive in front of the traffic. We had to film at a certain time and use the buses and people and what was going on with the cameras not really being seen. It was quite exciting to film like that.
Given that you weren’t involved in the action on the moors, what was your reaction to seeing it for the first time?
Jenny Agutter: I thought it was beautiful. We did get a rehearsal period before, and I remember just listening to the scenes. They were fantastic, with the dialogue between the two boys, so one had a sense of the whole piece. It was filmed wonderfully well. The whole pub scene was filled with Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Brian Glover, John Woodvine and all those people came from the stage, so there was a real sense of theatricality about it.
You did participate in one scene that involved special FX: the scene with the Nazi demons. How do you prepare for dying on camera?
Jenny Agutter: You don’t. That’s all film magic, because those kinds of sequences take forever to film and are only put together afterward. Those are the ones you’re sur prised by on screen, because you never have a sense of them running together. Doing that dream sequence, we were stopping and starting, stopping and starting. I’d stop and there’s a knife in me. I’d stop again and there’s another knife. Then there’s more blood: “Let’s pour on the blood!” Then people jump out. It’s all little bits and pieces. You have no sense of how it’s going to edit together. Only the director knows in his head exactly what it’s going to be like.
Where did you see American Werewolf for the first time?
Jenny Agutter: Landis always maintained that it was a film to be seen with an audience. When it opened in New York, we all went downtown to a cinema. It looked a bit grimy, which was worrying. We arrived in our limos and people were just looking at us. We went in and the air conditioning had broken down. It was very, very hot and people started to get restless. They were shouting and getting quite abusive. I thought we were going to get lynched. Then the film started and they got caught up with it. After the scene in the pub, the boys went out and (the audience] shouted at the screen, “Beware the moon!” Then of course the werewolf attacked, and they all screamed!
What are your feelings about the fantastique genre itself?
Jenny Agutter: It’s not actually a favorite genre for me, to tell the truth. As a moviegoer, I’m not that keen on science fiction and fantasy. They have to have something more than that. I want the stories to be about a little bit more. I’ve done a few of them, and often they fall into the trap of you being the woman just running and screaming down corridors. I made a film called Dark Tower that was actually quite a good, well-worked out Gothic horror story about a skyscraper and things that went wrong within it. Well, everything went wrong in the filming. We ended up in a four-story building, so it was no longer the dark tower, more like the dark squat. I literally ran down a corridor and screamed for two weeks. So the producers put together lots of that, and the film kind of diminished from where it started into being this ridiculous screaming nonsense, which is really sad.
You also starred in Logan’s Run and The Survivor.
Jenny Agutter: The Survivor was a peculiar film because it started off well. It was about a plane crash. I remember David Hemmings directing that: He shot the crash and then said, “I don’t think I can make the rest of it come up to that,” and one felt, “Oh, dear…”
It went down with the plane?
Jenny Agutter: Exactly! It’s a very strange film. Logan’s Run was a classic and one of the last real studio movies. Everything was big, big, big. If you think that that was six months before Star Wars, and how different that film was… It was made in a completely different way. Logan’s Run is delightful, but it’s captured in a particular time. It’s in a bubble.
It sounds like you can’t be persuaded to be a horror queen.
Jenny Agutter: No (laughs). I’d look at the horror movies for the roles or for something else. It’s not easy sometimes to make choices when you’re not always inundated with masses of stuff. So you have to look at them and go, “What’s going to happen with this film? Is this going to be good? Who are the people I’m working with?” Horror movies are the ones that, because of their nature, can be the most exploitable. People have a tendency to cut out the dialogue scenes, which literally happened on Child’s Play 2. I remember the director John Lafia) saying, “This isn’t working,” and-rip—the page went out and the effects went in. And I thought, “Why am I doing this?” It has to work on another level, and for me the best science fiction does. For some people, the effects are enough.
What have you turned down over the years that fits into this genre? Were you inundated with werewolf movies after American Werewolf?
Jenny Agutter: No. Actually, after American Werewolf, there was the actors’ strike in LA that covered a year and a half and was quite difficult. Then I came back to Eng. land) just before the strike ended and went to Stratford. There was a big gap between me getting back to Los Angeles and back to film.
Was there stuff afterward that you went after but didn’t get?
Jenny Agutter: Oh, there’s masses of films I went after and didn’t get. In this genre?
In this genre?
Jenny Agutter: Not really, no (laughs). There are some in there, like Alien-classics that one would have liked to have done, but I don’t believe I was even considered for. I don’t think Sigourney Weaver and I are the same sort of person!