Putting Family First: Mother Olivia Plays Mother Teresa
- 2006 13 Jun
“The world is hungry not only for food, but also for beauty.”
— Mother Teresa
When an actress has played Juliet (in “Romeo and Juliet”) and Mary, Jesus’ mother (in “Jesus of Nazareth”) – two of the most celebrated roles in theatre history, both under acclaimed director Franco Zefirelli – it’s hard to imagine a follow-up. But when those parts have also resulted in a Golden Globe and two successive Donatello awards (the Italian equivalent of Oscars) as well, one might well assume there are no greater accomplishments.
But Olivia Hussey always knew she had one remaining role to play. And, while it took more than 20 years to come about, she credits God with allowing her to portray Mother Teresa.
“I respected her compassion and her love and the way that she saw the face of Jesus in every person she met,” Hussey says. “There was interest in the project [years ago], but it fell apart. So I had to let it go, give it back to God. If it’s meant to be, it will come back to me, I said. And I truly believed that – I believe that about everything. And it did come back. It was 20 years of wishing and hoping and reading books on her. Then suddenly, from out of the blue, it came back to me, with five days notice.”
The film, titled “Mother Teresa,” is being released on DVD by Fox Home Entertainment. It tells the story of the diminutive Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who became one of the most celebrated missionaries in history. Born in Macedonia in 1910, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace for her work with the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, before dying in 1997.
Hussey spent her early childhood in Argentina, the daughter of an Argentine opera and tango singer and a British mother, before moving to England at the age of seven, where she attended drama school and landed a lead in the acclaimed London stage play, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” alongside Vanessa Redgrave. Zefirelli, who saw her performance, cast Hussey as Juliet, launching her film career at the age of 15. Since then, she has worked with some of the greatest actors of all time, including Burt Lancaster and Ben Cross in “The Jewelers Shop;” Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis in “Death on the Nile;” Ernest Borgnine in “The Last Days of Pompeii;” and, of course, Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn and Stacy Keach, to name just a few, in the renowned television miniseries, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
I recently talked to Hussey about “Mother Teresa,” as she shared what it meant to finally take on the part and how she’s managed to stay focused on her children, despite an award-winning career in Hollywood.
Annabelle Robertson: Well, I just loved the film.
Olivia Hussey: Thank you. It was done with a lot of love. It was kept very simple and, hopefully, it gets across the message of compassion and love that was Mother Teresa.
Annabelle: It’s very inspiring, but not preachy. Which is just like Mother Teresa, I suppose.
Olivia: You’re right. She wasn’t preachy at all, although she did have a will of iron. I don’t have her saintliness and I don’t speak a lot, but I know that she was the kind of person who puts her words into action. People would go to her and she would put them to work immediately. I identified with that. I met with a lot of missionaries in Rome and I said, “I know I don’t resemble her, but if I can portray her actions.” Agi [Bojaxhiu, niece and only direct living relative of Mother Teresa] said she felt like she was watching her auntie. And the missionaries [the Sisters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity] all endorsed my performance.
Annabelle: I did read that. Since the role came to you without notice, however, how did you prepare for it?
Olivia: We had no time to prepare. Two weeks after I heard of it, I was on the set. They were trying to get the film made in time for her beatification, you see.
Annabelle: And did they?
Olivia: Yes, they screened it last year at the Vatican. I went to the ceremony, sat with all the missionaries. And I finally got the Pope’s blessing.
Annabelle: What was that like?
Olivia: Oh, lovely! I did a film called “The Jewelers Shop,” written by Karol Wotyla, years ago, before he was Pope John Paul II. So it was a great thing to receive his blessing. My mother was a devout Catholic. I wish she had been here to see it.
Annabelle: You clearly identify with Mother Teresa’s calling.
Olivia: Oh, yes. I’ve always had a great love for God. Although I’m not really Catholic, I respect it. It’s whatever gets you through your life. [Mother Teresa’s] mandate came on a train ride to Darjeeling. [But she] wasn’t this spiritual person, talking to God all the time. She’d role up her sleeves and get right in there. How beautiful is that? Everything is the will of God. My mother used to say, “Just relax. What is meant to come will come. Just surrender to the Lord.” I used to say, “Oh, mummy, you’re such a preacher.” But I’ve become my mother!
Annabelle: We don’t hear a lot about Olivia Hussey in the media these days – certainly not in the tabloids. Yet you’ve acted with some of the greatest names in film.
Olivia: I don’t do a lot of publicity. And I don’t work that much – only when I want to do something.
Annabelle: Well, I feel like you really got this part.
Olivia: I really believe that there was a part of her endorsing me. I got deathly ill from the moment I arrived in Sri Lanka [where most of the film was made]. I had a throat infection, an ear infection, a chest infection – you name it. There were two doctors on the set, I was taking eight antibiotics, and I don’t even know how I went to work. My ears were ringing and I was so ill I truly don’t know how I did it. Every day, I thought, “I don’t think I can even leave the trailer,” but then I would medicate and feel this inner strength and calm. I had to tell myself, “Olivia, you’re just an actress. You’ve got fresh water, food and an air-conditioned trailer. They lived on the streets.” Then I felt this inner light coming in [and I would get up and go film]. I was very sad when the whole thing finished. I wanted to wear that sari for awhile longer! I would love for them to make a television series, so I could play her for awhile longer.
Annabelle: Did you go to India?
Olivia: Yes. I went and met Sister Nirmala [Mother Teresa’s successor]. While I was there, I saw the plight of the dogs in India. So with my girlfriends, we decided to start a mobile hospital there. I know people are more important – of course they are. But the dogs in India are everywhere. [It’s a huge problem.]
Annabelle: You’re obviously a big fan of animals.
Olivia: Oh, yes. I used to have 10 dogs, but I have 3 now. I also have two rabbits, a cat, a parrot, and four potbellied pigs.
Annabelle: I take it you don’t live in downtown L.A.!
Olivia: No, we have a house with an acre, and a second property that I bought for the pigs, north of L.A. We rented the cabin out to a couple of vegetarians who love animals, and we go and feed them. But we move every 18-20 months with my husband [David Glen Eisley], my daughter, my son and all the animals. We’re free spirits. We can’t stay in the same place for long. I’ve always had a dream of opening a little shop with unusual things, curios and things, so maybe in Oregon some day.
Annabelle: You said you don’t work a lot. Why is that?
Olivia: I’m so sick of these films that promote such darkness. There should be more films like “Mother Teresa” out there. You can’t rent a film and watch it with your children anymore without watching it first, to make sure it’s okay. They’re so dark. It’s vile, I tell you. I want to say to these directors, “If you want to change the world and make a difference, then don’t dwell on the darkness and the evil. Make something uplifting.” It’s exhausting.
Annabelle: I can see why you liked this role, then.
Olivia: Yes, that’s why this project was so close to my heart. This lady was so amazing. We can’t all be saints, but if we can all be just a little like her and see God in other beings. See that higher power, whatever that may be for you – it really doesn’t matter. People should start helping others. The world is in a sorry state, and the more people come out and help others, the more the world will change. [Mother Teresa] changed the world – yet she was just one person. She had help later, but she was completely alone at the beginning. She had nobody. Even the church opposed her leaving the convent. She picked up a dying woman in the streets – a woman of a lower caste, that no one would accept – and she died in her arms. She moved mountains, and she moved the world. She had a will of iron. If Mother Teresa had thought about all the millions of people she was going to help, she would have been overwhelmed. But she took it one day at a time, one person at a time.
Annabelle: What will you do next? Do you have a project that you’re excited about?
Olivia: I can’t waste too much energy thinking about my career. I don’t play that game. I should have, maybe when I was younger, but I was busy raising my children. I had my first child when I was 22. So I take it one day at a time. I’m focused on my 12-year-old daughter. The first three years form their entire personality – age three to seven, actually. If you give them all that love and attention [during those years], it pays off. If you can afford the luxury, it’s so important. Every time I really want something and pray for it, though, it seems to happen. So I’m very careful what I pray for. If I’m meant to go to work, I will. I’d love to be on a series that’s very inspiring, like “Touched by an Angel.” But if it’s meant to be it will come.
Annabelle: How do you handle television and film with, as you say, so much darkness, when it comes to your daughter?
Olivia: She watches the children’s channels. She’s been brought up with a lot of freedom, but she censors herself, actually. If a couple even kisses, she says, “Oh, no, no, no! I don’t want to see that!” She only likes to watch children’s things, and HGTV. We watch the gardening shows together.
Annabelle: You sound like a wonderful mother.
Olivia: Oh, thank you. I’ve always known where my children were. That’s my "Oscar." Alex, my eldest son, who is 33 (Dean Paul Martin’s son), went to Beverly Hills High School. He would call me up at 1:45 in the morning and say, “Mom, I’m at this party and they’re doing things I don’t like. Can I take a cab home?” I went out last night with him. He turned to me and said, “I’m so glad you are my mother.”
All those years of devoting yourself to your children really do pay off. [My children] are very caring – sometimes a little too sensitive, even. And if I was younger I would adopt a few more. I’ve got 3 and my 23-year-old is still at home, but I don’t want him to leave until he can find an apartment and figure out what he wants to do.
Starring Golden Globe winner Olivia Hussey in the title role, "Mother Teresa" is now available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.
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