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Jenny Agutter Talks American Werewolf, John Landis and Sex Scenes

As a huge fan of the horror comedy “An American Werewolf in London”, I was more than a little excited to get the opportunity to interview one of its stars, Jenny Agutter, some years ago in a London hotel room. Jenny was holding interviews for the special edition release of American Werewolf, and I was lucky enough to snag myself a place and a good half an hour with Jenny.

Jenny Agutter has the sort of film career most people can only dream of, with credits including “Logan’s Run”, “The Railway Children”, the hugely controversial “Walkabout” and even appearances in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) in “Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Her TV credits are just as impressive, with appearances in much-loved shows such as “Magnum P.I.”, Murder She Wrote”, “The Equalizer”, “Red Dwarf” and most recently, as Sister Julienne in “Call the Midwife”.

Jenny talked openly with me about American Wealth in London, about the director John Landis, who also directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, her controversial movie Walkabout, which was previously banned, and what it was like filming a sex scene with co-star David Norton, when David had a crush on her at the time. Jenny opens up on American Werewolf in London like she’s never done before…

Darren: Jenny, John Landis is one of my all-time favorite directors, being a huge Michael Jackson fan as I am, and him having directed Thriller, the greatest music video of all time. I’d love to know what he what he’s like as a director to work for.

Jenny: He’s a terrific director. He brings a huge amount of energy on set. It has an extraordinary flow to it, very high energy. So, I think that’s always apparent, and it helps you enormously because it keeps you on your toes. He wrote American Werewolf, and he’s very good at recognising people and the way they are – what’s real and what’s not real. You feel very secure that he’s actually gonna make choices that make sense for a character and not leave you with egg on your face.

And he does odd things – he’d do a take and he’d go on and not cut when things slide, he’d just go “okay, just do that line again”, so you come right in and do it, and often you know, because it’s in the moment, it has a completely different reaction to it, which you’ll use. It’s very, very good, very fun.

Darren: That leads me on to another question about John Landis. Does he let his actors improvise their lines during filming as some directors do?

Jenny: It was a fairly worked script actually, but he does encourage almost improvisation, which is that the sense of the moment should be absolutely happening there and then, as opposed to becoming sort of just saying things that you have to say, and I’m not sure about David, but I certainly was improvising things.

Darren: Yeah, David and Griffin jokingly said – at least, I think they were joking –that they’d improvised the whole lot, every line in the film.

Jenny: Oh, did they? I’m not sure about that! But I think John allows for things to happen, and I guess if people decide to use it, if it makes sense, but “see you next Wednesday” was on the script.

Darren: “An American Werewolf in Paris”, the sequel, I heard a rumor that about the same time that film went into production, John Landis himself was attempting to get his own sequel made that included your character Nurse Price. What did you know about that?

Jenny: It was talked about. In truth, I didn’t think he ever, when in the original American Werewolf, think of it in terms of it having an ongoing story.

Clearly, any film company that makes a film is always going to talk about sequels, you know, particularly if they see something as being successful, but I’m not really quite sure what Landis’ plans were to make another one. The American Werewolf in Paris was completely separate.

Darren: Oh for me, Werewolf in Paris was a very poor sequel when compared with the quality of the original.

Jenny: It’s using a theme, and I think that that does happen in lots of films, but it hasn’t got the same ingredients, I don’t think.

Darren: No, it certainly hasn’t – it doesn’t have you for a start.

Jenny: Yeah, you know it’s such a strange combination. I mean, I’d be very unhappy to make anything like that without Landis directing.

Darren: On the feature commentary of the DVD for American Werewolf in London, Griffin Dunn talked about how they were having problems with American work visas, including his.

Jenny: Yeah, we walked about moving the whole thing. I wonder how it would’ve worked in Paris? I guess there are places to go to, they do have some very wild landscapes.

I think it wasn’t just an empty threat, he really found it a problem, because he was not going to try to make two English guys seem American because the whole point of it was to have two really American boys to set up the whole English thing.

Darren: Can you tell me what research you had to do for the role of Nurse Price in American Werewolf?

Jenny: I don’t think much research was required; however I did do some, but looking back I don’t think it was necessary.

I went to work a week in a voluntary way in a hospital, just to spend some time with the nurses, and I did find out quite a lot about them, and it was fascinating, anywhere is fascinating.

It’s silly things like I didn’t want to be there with a clipboard in my hand and not really knowing what was going to be doing with the clipboard, or whether you would indeed be doing that, and what they were like and how they walked across the wards, and what the attitudes were, and where they were going to in between times, you know. I did find out quite a lot about all that, so at least I could have it in my mind.

But, you know, he wrote a good relationship, which is really sort of what that’s about, in fact. Very straightforward young woman who’s very sure of herself and meets the young man who needs to be taken care of.

Darren: Here’s a difficult question – most horror movies, particularly horror comedies, never seem to strike the right balance between horror and comedy, and often fail at both. Why do you think American Werewolf got it so right and was so successful when most other horror films of the same genre failed?

Jenny: It wasn’t being frightening for it’s own sake. So, you start off with a good story with real characters that people identify with, because you sort of recognise them, and it’s for every man being in a bizarre situation, which is werewolves don’t exist, except in this, they do. We’re not being spooked by shadows and ghosts and things, we’re saying there’s someone who is undead and a werewolf, so that’s both funny and frightening, but it makes you identify as real people with circumstances.

I think his energy, its use of music and sound is extremely violent, I think it had extraordinary effects. I mean even today, with all the changes that have been in special effects, what Rick Baker did with John Landis to create the changes into the werewolf is extraordinary.

Darren: Yes, it’s so much better than the effects in Werewolf in Paris.

Jenny: Yes, when everybody these days presumes it’s going to be computerised, but it was created in front of your eyes. The main thing, that’s part of the fascination. I think the main thing is the identification and sense of story, and the comic aspects of it.

Also, the things that I’ve done that have totally been remembered and come back and they’ve always started with the same kind of venture, they’ve always started with the same thing – “I have to make this film, I am going to make this film whatever the odds”. And three people said that. Nicholas said “I’m going to make this film, I don’t care whether there’s a handheld camera”.

But he was totally dedicated, it was fully together, you know, he really thought about that film before making it, it wasn’t on the wing. It’s a very clever script. Lionel Jeffries, who was clearly so determined that he was going to have certain ingredients, he’s going to put that film together, he was totally clear-headed about it, and he knew what that story was, and with John, he wrote that story when he was 19. He was determined he was going to make that film.

Darren: Incidentally, how did you meet John Landis?

Jenny: Through an actor friend, I met his wife Deborah, and the two of them were young people, Very very funny, really interested in film, John was a real movie buff.

Darren: Yeah, and it really shows through in his films as well.

Jenny: Yeah, he and Rick became great friends, good people.

Darren: Speaking of Rick Baker and the Oscar-winning special effects for David’s transformation sequence, how pleased were you that you didn’t have to go through a werewolf transformation sequence like that?

Jenny: Very, very pleased! I was also very pleased not to be Griffin and have to come in and have my makeup done at 5.30 in the morning for three hours to look hideous.

I guess a werewolf would have been better than Griffin’s job, cause that was an every day job, whereas the werewolf was only one transformation. I guess it is quite interesting to do.

Darren: And I think Michael Jackson voluntarily did both the werewolf transformation sequence and sported the zombie makeup in John Landis’s Thriller.

Jenny: Oh, that’s right, but he’s done all sorts of transformations anyway.

Darren: David Norton, in the feature commentary, mentioned how he’d seen you perform in a play before you acted together in An American Werewolf, and that he’d had a massive crush on you before meeting you in person and acting together. Were you aware of this at the time?

Jenny: His memory fails him slightly! He did see me in a theater, which was Equus, but I actually played in the movie, so what he actually saw was the film, which is very theatrically shot.

Darren: I see, so how did it make you feel when you were acting alongside him when he had a massive crush on you?

Jenny: He never told me.

Darren: He never told you that, really?

Jenny: No!

Darren: He says he did.

Jenny: He says he told me?

Darren: Yeah, he says he told you.

Jenny: Did he? Well, I don’t remember, maybe my memory is playing now. To relax, he had a couple beers before we did the scene in bed together.

Darren: As do all men, I think.

Jenny: It’s highly technical, it’s all to do with placing a camera here, to your right, it’s extremely awkward trying to make something look seductive and relaxed, which it isn’t, but he’s good fun. I mean you spend a lot of time together, anything that’s said like that is taken with a pinch of salt.

Darren: You’ve played a lot of different roles over the years, including some very strong female characters, but how well do you think the role of Alex in American Werewolf was written?

Jenny: She’s actually very well written, and that’s really what’s appealing. If I had any worries about whether it would work or it wouldn’t work you then, because I hadn’t done the film yet, I could say well it’s a character worth playing, really, it’s a good character – very well flushed out and totally makes sense, and yes, her judgment may have been a little bit skew-whiff. There’s an awful lot of people that get taken in by men that they think are one way to feed others, so it’s not you know it’s not hard range.

And I did ask Landis at the end “who am I speaking to when I say ‘I love you’ at the end? Am I talking to the wall?” And he goes “no, no, no, you’re talking to David”. And of course, the way it’s cut together, I look down at David and he’s transformed into the wolf. So I go “I love you” and this creature goes “arghh!” And I’m totally sincere, saying it to a wolf.

Darren: Yeah, and I was really expecting a happy ending at that point.

Jenny: Yeah, I know, it is extraordinary because he managed to do that, because it isn’t, it really isn’t, and that’s it, they shoot him.

Darren: And then the joyful music kicks in.

Jenny: [Sings the tune]

Darren: David Norton also mentioned on the commentary that they were they were disappointed with the film’s reaction from the critics, especially from the New York Times. What memories do you have from the press reactions to American Werewolf?

Jenny: I remember them being fairly favourable actually, I don’t know that they were bad. Norton may have expected, I don’t know, whether he just felt people didn’t appreciate enough what went behind making it and the creation.

To tell you the truth, I don’t involve myself a huge amount in reading criticism because I’ve done both theater and film, and the fact is if you start believing, if you start reading things, and they’re good reviews you believe that, and you’re lost, and then you read bad reviews and you read that and you’re lost.

But my impression was that that it generally was quite was liked by the journalists and the writers. There may well have been people that were complaining, but they certainly weren’t bad. You know, Landis has a reputation as commercial filmmaker, and that’s always hard for filmmakers not to be taken seriously when in many ways, there are quite serious aspects too, as to how it is made.

American Werewolf is really quite interesting, but you know, those things play out in the long run. Walkabout did not have good reviews when it came out. They didn’t know what they were reviewing, and in fact, I think it was Candy, who rewrote his review, actually wrote to me saying that he wanted to re-review it and talked about it six months or a year later. It didn’t help the time, but you know some people said starting it, they didn’t get it, didn’t know what was going on at all the time, but time tells them those things, which is the fact if something remains, for whatever reason people read revisit, rewrite, talk about it.

Darren: You’re in good company, there’s a history of great films getting bad reviews when they first came out, as the critics just didn’t understand the. Films such as “Psycho” and “Blade Runner” for example.

Jenny: That’s right, I mean people really didn’t like Psycho, that’s right. You know, time tells whether a film works or doesn’t really work.

Darren: What in your career do you consider the highlight, or the work that you’re most proud of?

Jenny: Probably the things that most people haven’t seen, like Sweet William was a wonderful thing to do. It was a great opportunity to play somebody who had all these peculiar aspects to her personality, which one finds playing, and that was a very odd relationship with someone who didn’t quite reveal who they were. There’s an awful lot of discoveries going on about the layers to which relationships this man she was with had before.

And it’s very funny and it was great to do. And then there are things that I’ve done on stage that I really enjoyed doing, like Reagan and King Lear, because she’s thoroughly, thoroughly dark and bad, and there is something fascinating about looking at those aspects and playing them. And at the same time I did a play about a woman, terribly Shakespeare, so it’s a similar time, who had eight attempts at murdering her husband – not very nice but again, fascinating to play some one who is clearly driven

Darren: And now I guess you probably know what I was talking about if I were to say the words “see you next Wednesday”?

Jenny: The movie within the movie, which was always said, and he’s done it in other films.

Darren: Yeah, he’s included it in a lot of his films, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, “Blues Brothers” as well, he’s stopped doing it now though.

Jenny: Oh, has he?

Darren: Yeah, people started spotting it far too easily.

Jenny: John put it in in very, very subtle ways, like Hitchcock’s Shadow.

Darren: I know photography is a huge passion of yours, and you’ve published your own photography book called “Snap”. Do you have any plans to publish any more of your photography?

Jenny: I did have, but I actually haven’t had a camera, apart from an instamatic, in my hand for a while. I haven’t really properly handled a camera in a while but I’m still fascinated by it and I still go to exhibitions. But it’s like drawing anything – if you’re not actually doing it, you’re not getting on with that particular craft.

Darren: So classic interview question coming up – apologies in advance for this one – what has been the greatest challenge in your life so far, either personal or professional?

Jenny: The biggest change in my mind is getting married, because it requires a huge change in oneself, particularly since I thought of myself completely independent class up until the age of 37, when I got married. Leading my life absolutely as I wanted to do it, I’m being accused of actually being very selfish because I just did whatever I wanted to do, and then one is blessed with the possibility of having somebody else in your life and accommodating that is both enormous joy and an enormous challenge. It does make you realise that the way you want to do something isn’t necessarily the only way to do it, you may end up thinking that it’s the only right way to do it.

It’s the pleasure of finding out all the ways to accommodate someone’s life, my husband’s life.

Darren: So, learning to make compromises?

Jenny: It’s funny, you don’t sort of see it as compromise, it’s really not compromising, because you end up kind of getting involved wholeheartedly. You just find out that there are other ways, and you just have to drop the self, the thing about being absolutely sure to turn to maybe one way. It’s not compromising, it’s not saying “well, I really don’t like to do that but i will do it because.” It’s actually going “well, I would do that this way.” “Oh, all right, we could do this another way.”

It’s also the joy of bringing somebody completely different into your life.

You know, I remember we went to New York one time, and it was six o’clock, but already 9-10-11 o’clock your time, and my husband says “we should go to the opera.” And I go, “yes, but we could rest, I thought it would be a good idea.” And he goes, “that is a good idea, that’s why we’ll go to the opera!”

It makes me laugh, because it’s completely insane, and it’s nothing I would ever think of doing, so you get to do some things that you would never normally do.

Darren: Now, you’ve appeared in one of my all-time favorite comedies, Red Dwarf. What was it about the script for Red Dwarf that made you want to do that show?

Jenny: I think it was just that it was a very, very funny idea, it was a very funny script, and it was fun to do something that already had a huge cult following.

Darren: Do you receive a lot of requests to appear in comedy like that?

Jenny: I do like those things yes. I do like comedy, it’s easier to do on stage when you’re working with an audience, because you know where it works or it doesn’t work, but when you’re in a film, you’re kind of always going “well is it going to work, is that funny?” because nobody’s laughing, because nobody’s pretending to, people are just being quiet in the background so you just don’t know, you have no way of knowing if it was funny.

You know it was funny in your own head, but you’re not quite sure what they’re going to see, so it is quite difficult. But I like comedy, I like going to comedy.

I’m doing something about MI5 at the moment, so that’s quite fun, and dealing with that peculiar world of espionage, albeit home-based, where people are leading a life that is unanswerable to them. And we’re trying to get a sense of gritty realness.

Darren: Now you’ve recently settled here in London after living abroad. Is there anything you missed that you can’t get in London, such as, well, the weather would be the obvious one?

Jenny: This time of year, I just find the wind really hard to get through, and the long winters. That’s about the only thing, because I can see my friends who live here as well. I’m not one for missing things very much actually, because I travelled a lot as a child and if I want to be somewhere, I’ll be there. Britain occupies so much of my time, with family and projects and things I want to be involved in. With that, once one has a family, you’re more socially involved, which I really wasn’t in LA.

It’s quite hard to have a good social set up that’s reflected on the way one thinks, so now I don’t really miss anything from that point of view, and it becomes the same thing. I do like swimming and I do like sunshine because I was brought up with it, but then I get such a kick out of London, and I just think it’s such an exciting city, and there’s so much going on all the time. There’s music, theater, all sorts of events, great places to go and eat, great places too for art, anything you could want.

Darren: Now, here’s a loaded question to finish off with. What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received, he asks, knowing you had your son on December 25th.

Jenny: What’s the best thing about Christmas? My son.

Darren: Yes, it was a very loaded question.

Jenny: Yes, you know it was a very, very extraordinary thing, and he wasn’t expected on Christmas day, he wasn’t expected until the 28th of January, it was quite a shock.

Darren: Thank you so much for answering my questions Jenny.

Jenny: Thank you very much.

Darren: And for putting up with my fangirl moments over American Werewolf. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you, I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this interview with Jenny Agutter, please consider subscribing to this podcast on iTunes and leaving me a glowing five-star review, I would certainly appreciate it.

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