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Interview with Lisa Eichhorn

LOS ANGELES -- On those few occasions when a dream does come true, its reality can look like this:

It is already dark on a late winter afternoon in Los Angeles, and the rain has been streaming down for days, filling the canyons with mudslides. It is damp and dank inside the soundstage out at the old Culver City Studios, two blocks from where the legendary MGM lot still sits and recalls its days of glory. A 26-year-old woman named Lisa Eichhorn pulls a ratty bathrobe closer around her, smiles and says, "I usually like to be a little more coherent and chipper than I am this afternoon." She's getting over a cold. At this moment she is waiting for an assistant director to call her for the next scene of the new movie she is appearing in.

Lisa Eichhorn is a busy young actress. After last year's "Yanks" and the new "Why Would I Lie?" (which opens Friday in Chicago) this film, "Cutter and Bone," will come out sometime around Christmas. Did she once dream all this? Thirteen years ago, this young woman sat in her room in Reading, Pa., reading a book by Thomas Hardy, the British poet and novelist of the late 19th century. She was reading "Far from the Madding Crowd," and she was excited because a new British movie based on the novel was going to open in Reading. The movie starred Julie Christie as Hardy's headstrong, young rural heroine. The men in her life were played by Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.

The movie did not get good reviews when it opened, and it did not do well at the box office. But it captured the imagination of the 13-year-old girl in Pennsylvania: "It hit me like a thunderbolt." She went to see it and she knew that somehow, sometime, she had to live in England.

She read the other British authors of the period. D. H. Lawrence became more her favorite than Hardy. When she was 16, she spent the summer in England -- in summer school at Oxford's Pembroke College. "We'd tour the countryside, see everything we could. We went to all the theater we possibly could, in Stratford and London. I stood at Stonehenge and was enthralled." When it was time for her to go to college, she applied to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. She knew Canada wasn't England, but -- she smiles now -- "it was the closest thing. I had no idea of ever being able to study in England. And Queens was a Scottish Presbyterian university, which made it somehow more British than other Canadian universities."

Eichhorn studied English literature, drama, "and maybe sociology... Sociology didn't make much of an impression on me." She had some idea that she might want to be an actress. After two years, she won a scholarship to Oxford, one of the oldest, best and most romantic and beautiful universities in the world. Her dream was coming true.

She was a student at St. Peter's College at Oxford, a men's college. "I lived off the college grounds, in the YMCA at first, and then rooming with some other students. I had a one-year scholarship, but I lived so frugally that I was able to stay for another year, with a little help from my parents. I worked at the King's Arms, a pub near the campus. I knew by that time that I wanted to act, that I did want to be an actor. I was in several plays at Oxford. I knew I had to make a choice between academics and acting. And I decided when I left Oxford to stay in England and do a lot of acting, to do all the acting I could."

It is here that the story turns into the dream coming true.

Lisa Eichhorn, not yet 21 years old, with no professional experience, went up to London and met young actors who were students in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Britain's famous training ground for actors. She found rooms on New Kings' Road in Fulham, in April 1974, and she discovered that the year's formal auditions for new places in RADA had already been held. But she went to the principal of RADA, Alan Rickman, asked for a private audition and got one: "We talked about acting, what it meant, and what it should be: Two days later, he called me up and said he had decided to accept me in RADA."

Training in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts is more consciously old-fashioned than in an American preparatory program. American acting schools, influenced in many cases by Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio, concentrate on motivation, on feeling and inhabiting the role, on the "Method" by which the actor attempts to make a leap of the imagination into the character, to become the character he is playing. RADA is not like that. "They assume you can act," Eichhorn said, "because you are an actor. The logic is simple: If you were not an actor, you would not be in RADA. Their training program is devoted to developing your equipment to the best of your -- and their -- ability. I was a workaholic, trying to improve my body and my voice."

At RADA, as everyone does, she took classes in voice and movement, diction, speech, dialects. She did daily exercises at the bar. She learned to fence, to do basic stunts, to take falls without hurting herself. In one of RADA's most whimsical homages to acting styles of the past, she took a course named, "The Language of the Fan."

In the second half of the second term, Eichhorn and the other students began doing productions before free audiences. By the end of the first year, the students were moved along to Restoration Comedy. They went on a tour of schools. "We did Shakespeare for children. Then the Russians, starting with Chekhov. Then modern plays: 'Habeas Corpus,' Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians.'

After RADA, she went into a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," playing Rosalind. And it was then that the great turning point in her life came. Word was out in acting circles all over London that John Schlesinger, one of the most important British directors, was casting for a major new film to be named "Yanks."

It was a film of particular importance to Schlesinger because it dealt, in some ways, with his own experiences as a young man. It was about the American soldiers who were sent to England during World War II, about their impact on the British villages where they were stationed… and, of course, about the girls they met there. Schlesinger had already cast Vanessa Redgrave as one of the female leads in his film and Richard Gere as one of the young Yanks. Now he was looking for the other female lead… a young girl… she could be an unknown… she had to be British, of course, since the whole point was that she would be a British girl meeting an American boy.

Even though she was an American, Lisa Eichhorn determined to try out for the role. "I had an agent, who told me I absolutely had to say I was British," she said. "He told me: 'You are British, as far as this audition goes. If you tell him something like, you're American but you can do a British accent, you're lost. He needs a British girl because that's the whole point of the story.'"

So Eichhorn gathered up her courage and walked in to John Schlesinger and… "I've never lied about anything like that. I said I was British, and there was a pause, and then I said, well, half British… my mother was an American or some such thing, so that if he detected a tiny American accent there would be an explanation for it."

She got the role. Schlesinger believed that she was British. And it was only weeks later, on the set of "Yanks," that she discovered that John Schlesinger had been the director of that first film she'd seen all those years ago, that film that struck her like a thunderbolt, "Far from the Madding Crowd." If she'd known that at the time of the audition, she thinks, she might not have been able to go through with it. "Yanks" was a great success for Eichhorn, if less of a success in the marketplace. And Schlesinger was not proved wrong in casting her as a British girl: None of the British critics faulted her accent. She was a star, according to some of the articles that began to be written about her. She was nominated for a Golden Globe award, and at last she came back home to America and (the dream almost must end this way) to Hollywood and to this cold, damp, dark Hollywood sound stage on a dreary winter day, where she sat in an old cane chair by the table for the coffee machine. There is this bittersweet quality about show business, that it's always shabby behind the footlights. The glitter is for the audience, and the actors live in rundown backstage romanticism.

The name of the movie she was making was Ivan Passer's "Cutter and Bone." It is about an emotional and criminal triangle, involving Eichhorn, Jeff Bridges and John Heard (last seen as Jack Kerouac in "Heart Beat"). Bridges is a gigolo type, Eichhorn is his wife, Heard is a Vietnam veteran with one leg. The three of them get mixed up in a murder in Santa Barbara, and along the way Heard and Eichhorn fall in love. Today's scene had Heard screaming in rage as Eichhorn cowered on a bed in the ratty bathrobe.

What is it like, I asked her, to start out in Reading, Pa., sitting in a movie theater and looking at Julie Christie and dreaming of being an actress someday and living in England... and then having that happen, every detail of it, and to be poised here on the other edge of that gulf of the imagination, working as a successful actress?

"I think... " she said, "Well, who's to say? That a lot of luck is involved. Even if you're good, a lot of luck."

And now you're a celebrity? Does that change the way you regard things? She smiled. "I'm not really very well known yet. But I'll never be one of these people who pretend they resent publicity. Getting known is part and parcel of the job."

The assistant director, who had been expected momentarily for half an hour, turned up at last to ask Eichhorn to present herself for the next scene. I walked over to watch the filming and met Joan Blum, who was the movie's script supervisor.

In the old days they used to call the job "script girl," and Hollywood legend had it that if you really wanted to know how a new actress was doing, you asked the script girl, because her job was to stand as close to the action as possible, watch everything, make notations of the most minute details on her copy of the script, and be so quiet and invisible that they sometimes almost forgot she was there. I asked Joan Blum how Lisa Eichhorn seemed to be doing.

"Well," she said, "she's supposed to be playing a dissipated, alcoholic, Quaaluded type, They made tests for two weeks, experimenting with makeup, hair. There was no way. They just couldn't make her look ugly. You know what I think when I look at her? Garbo. Especially around the eyes."

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