Login

Jenny Agutter: Role By Role

Image for Jenny Agutter: Role By Role

National treasure seems a fuddy-duddyish way to describe an actress whose always taken bold steps on the big and small screens, not to mention the stage, across a four-decade career. As one of The Railway Children and alumnus of Nicolas Roeg's magical Walkabout, Jenny Agutter definitely qualifies for that title but she's adding to that CV with a new film, Tin. Her latest project is an extravagantly costumed comedy-drama set in her beloved Cornwall. It's a change of pace from the last time we saw her on the big screen, stepping on HYDRA's moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She talked Empire through her defining big-screen roles.

Tin (2015)
Character: Mrs. Dawson

"It's a highly imaginative film. It was a lovely surprise watching it for the first time because I had no idea what it was going to look like. I asked the director (Bill Scott) and he said, 'Oh, the sets will be created and there'll be models,' so I assumed that it wasn't going to be real - that it'd be a theatrical piece. And it really is strangely theatrical, without being on the stage. They've just ripped the walls of the theatre and created an epic background with greenscreen that I was never a part of (laughs). That wonderfully over-the-top Victorian hat was made specially for the me by the designer. I might borrow it and wear it to Ascot!"

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Character: Councilwoman Hawley

"She was one of the shadowy characters from the comic book. That shot of them all as holograms reminds me of our current election. Would I vote for Councilwoman Hawley? I think she's probably alright! She's obviously worked something out with Scarlett Johansson's character.

The Avengers was great fun to do but I didn't know very much about that before going, and then Captain America came up and, again, no script. They could only tell me who was going to be in it but couldn't tell me anymore about it, so I had to do it as a matter of trust. They told me to be sure to be fit so I thought maybe they were going to kill her off or there'd be a rumpus of some sort. I do work out and made sure I was in a good state, but when I got there they told me it would all be done with stunts. I said, 'No, no! You don't realise. I really want to do this.' My training was in ballet and suddenly working with the stunt team was like being thrown back into ballet class. They were fantastic, although they wouldn't let me hit Robert Redford. I did a great deal of it and it was all cut in, although I didn't do any somersaults. I know watch action movies in a completely different way because I'm riveted by what people do.

It was great fun to do, especially when you're in the middle of Call The Midwife and you get to do something completely different. I didn't know about Edgar Wright's tweet (laughs). How very funny, how wonderful. Could she come back in the [MCU]? I'd like that!"

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Character: Molly

"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 Railway Children (1970)
Character: Bobbie Waterbury

"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."

Walkabout (1971)
Character: The Girl

"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."

Logan's Run (1976)
Character: Jessica

"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. Was it weirder acting opposite Box or Chucky in Child's Play 2? Child's Play was not something I'm particularly proud to have done. It was much less than the script I read.

Logan's Run would actually be really good to remake with younger actors. Who would I cast as Jessica now? There's some wonderful young actors about. I'd want to go someone wiry and peculiar and young. Someone with no lines on their face."

American Werewolf in London (1981)
Character: Nurse Alex Price

"Do people come up to talk to me about American Werewolf? Where I am in Camberwell, people want to talk about it; in other places people want to talk about The Railway Children. A lot of people approach me about Call The Midwife because it's so personal to them. A lot of middle-aged men tell me how frightened they were of American Werewolf as a child and I look at them and say, "You're not meant to see it as a child!" (laughs).

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."

Tin is in cinemas now.