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Pauline Collins is best remembered as Shirley Valentine the world over, but in Quartet she plays a retired opera singer – Collins, who “works from the gut” is not a one note actress. Andrew L. Urban meets her and sings her praises.

Quartet opens in Australia on December 26, 2012

Petite, warm, sprightly and with an infectious smile, Pauline Collins in real life is just what you’d expect. A long, multi-blue scarf is resting on her shoulders over a loose, long sleeved, soft white dress as she greets me warmly at a Sydney harbourside hotel with 22nd floor views over the city.

"most of the time she is as cheeky as Collins"

Her manner defies her age, which in her latest film, Quartet, is compounded for her character Cissy by the beginnings of vascular dementia – a more benign degenerative disease than Alzheimers, which she refers to as “dark and despairing loss of self”. As Cissy, a retired soprano, has an occasional lapse from the world around her, but most of the time she is as cheeky as Collins.

Quartet is the story of Cissy, Reggie (Tom Courtenay) and Wilfred (Billy Connolly), retired opera singers, living – along with others - at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. Every year, on October 10, the residents organise a fund raising concert for the home and to celebrate Verdi's birthday. The once celebrated Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who was briefly married to Reggie years ago, arrives unexpectedly at the home and disrupts their equilibrium. She still acts like a diva, but she refuses to sing in the gala. Still, the show must go on... and it does.

"he’s very easy to work with, very inclusive of everybody and very generous"

Along with her costars, Collins had fun making Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut. “Like most actors who direct,” she says, “he likes to do the scene for you. So he’s talking me through a scene and he’d do his Raymond walk from Rainman, and I’d say to him, no, Dustin, Cissy’s not like Raymond … But he’s very easy to work with, very inclusive of everybody and very generous.”

The four stars of the film had known each other professionally and in some cases personally for years. “We have a lot of shared memories and we all trusted each other,” says Collins, “which makes you braver. And Dustin agreed to let us improvise around Ronald Harwood’s script … nobody was precious about it.”

Collins is not an analytical actor, “I like to work from the gut, and I don’t think Dustin is too analytical.” Surprisingly for someone who has been acclaimed as a screen actress for decades, Collins says she learnt more about film from Dustin Hoffman “than anyone else. He believes that in film you only have to think the thought – you don’t have to do it …”

But Hoffman did have one strange request; “after doing a scene Dustin says let’s do the close ups – hold your chin up,” and Collins demonstrates, her head slightly tilted back. “Oh I can’t act like that, I said to him. But he said just do it, we’ll just slip in a short shot …. trust me, you’ll be grateful. Of course what he was doing was giving us a shot without our double chins!” says Collins with a giggle.

Everyone remembers Collins as the BAFTA winning Shirley Valentine, from the 1989 movie that put her on the international map, and Collins lists it as one of her favourite roles; she first played it on stage, in a performance that won her Laurence Olivier,Tony and Drama Desk Awards. “That role opened a lot of doors for me and gave me many more choices.” She also lists as a milestone her role of the maid Sarah Moffat in the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-73).

"I do love the work, but I never get desperate for it"

“I do love the work, but I never get desperate for it.” And when she isn’t working she likes to read or go for long holidays, like the one she took with her husband John Alderton recently to the Cook Islands. “I had always wanted to see that part of the world and I wasn’t disappointed.”

Published December 26, 2012

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Andrew L. Urban & Pauline Collins


... as Cissy in Quartet

... as Shirley Valentine

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