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An Interview with Rita Tushingham

Having launched her career in the 1961 British New Wave film, A Taste of Honey, Rita Tushingham has starred in iconic films including, The Knack… and How to Get It, Doctor Zhivago, The Leather Boys, The Trap, and Under the Skin. Rita has also worked extensively in Italian cinema, starring in films such as Ragazzo di borgata and Black Journal. I spoke with Rita about landing the role of Jo in A Taste of Honey, working with Tony Richardson, working in Italian cinema, and her role in Ridley Road and the upcoming Last Night in Soho.

Did you always want to pursue a career in acting?

I didn’t ever decide. It was just something that was with me. I didn’t wake up one day and think I want to act. I just always wanted to, I suppose when you’re young, sort of say entertain. Hopefully not in a precocious way, but it was always something that was part of me.

How did you land the role of Jo in A Taste of Honey?

I was working backstage at Liverpool Rep. I saw in the newspaper that they were looking for an unknown to play the role of Jo in A Taste of Honey. At the time I was reading a play of John Osbourne’s, The World of Paul Slickey. John Osbourne and Tony Richardson formed Woodfall Films. I thought I’d write a letter and send a photograph, which is something you do when you are young. I sent it to John Osbourne’s agent. It got to Tony and to John and they asked me to go to London for an audition, which I did on the Kings Road in Chelsea Town Hall. My Mum came with me and then I did another audition and then a film test. Luckily, I got the part!

What was the process like working with Tony Richardson?

I’d never done film before and it was wonderful. Everyone was fantastic. I didn’t know then because I was so inexperienced, but the great thing about Tony was that he not only would cast his cast, but cast his crew. He chose everyone that he thought was best for that job. Also, he had a great relationship with them. He really was encouraging and enthusiastic to everyone, and they all loved working with him. Obviously without Tony, I would have perhaps never have got into film.

I was at the Royal Court where Tony Richardson was and he asked me to come to London before we started shooting A Taste of Honey. I also played a small role in a play called The Changeling with Mary Ure, who was married to John Osbourne at the time. There was this whole little sort of group of people that really looked after me and so I really felt that I knew people before we started shooting. Then of course having Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens, Murray Melvin, and Paul Danquah. It was such a dream cast and lovely actually that it was quite a small cast. As I said I was so inexperienced I didn’t know whether this was the way films were always made or not. But it was very unusual because so much of it was on location. We didn’t shoot anything in a studio.

Rita in A Taste of Honey

It was quite controversial upon its release…

Yes, very. It was one of the first interracial screen kisses. That’s very interesting. It didn’t seem strange at the time. It was way ahead of its time. People talk about it more now than they did then.

Did it cause much backlash afterwards?

Not really, but people would say to me things don’t happen like that. Certainly, about Murray Melvin’s character, the homosexual. Things like that don’t happen, that’s not true life. A lot of people were completely in denial about what life was. You did also notice that there was racism too. I became very close friends with Paul Danquah, who sadly passed away nearly six years ago. We would go out and about in London and people would shout things across the road at us. They’d say black and white don’t mix. We went to an event once at a very well-known hotel on Park Lane where someone swore at Paul because he asked for a drink. I can’t say what, but what the waiter said was so shocking. I hadn’t been aware of things like that. Suddenly, being in something that was so high profile did I realise what the big world was like and how much people made of it. And how frightened people were of things. A lot of people didn’t embrace what life was. Now they do, but it’s still not changed. It is still around, but not like it was.

It certainly was very ground-breaking

It was and some people just couldn’t take that on board. It worried them because they were trying to hide away from things that were real life. It was so interesting that Shelagh Delaney wrote that from her experiences growing up.

British New Wave films often tackle important issues, which is something I really admire about them

Yes, they did. They called it Kitchen Sink, which was sort of derogatory in a way, wasn’t it? A kitchen sink, unless it is something clean, you can think of as being quite messy and you don’t get clean thoughts. Suddenly people were saying kitchen sink this and putting it into its own category. When you look back it was ground-breaking. Good for Tony and John Osbourne and all the actors and people that were in those films. I certainly didn’t think I was making a ground-breaking film and I’m this or that, but I just thought that the story was a wonderful story. I suppose either you think that way or you don’t, but people need to be educated, don’t they? Now they are far more educated about what life is. The only way we are all going to get on is to embrace all the different cultures and the religions and the way people are.

Film is very important in that sense…

Well, it goes all over the world doesn’t it. That’s the good thing about film. It reaches every corner of our planet. If it’s allowed to be shown because in certain countries they wouldn’t allow A Taste of Honey to be shown. South Africa, of course. I’m not sure, but I think New Zealand was one of the countries. Which seems so crazy now when you see the Prime Ministers they have. Everyone has to learn. We have to advance and be educated. That we do in our schools and hopefully at home.

Has the way you approach a role changed since you first started out as an actor?

I never actually thought I’m going to approach this role this way. I really don’t know how I work. It’s how I’ve always worked. There’s lots of little frames above my head and I see it that way. Then, when I start to break it down the character will often be with me. I don’t mean I take it home and I’m that character. Once I finish for the day, I will leave the character as I hang up the costume, but I will think a lot about it especially beforehand. Little things will come in because I will observe. Not knowingly, but sometimes I will think oh my goodness I saw that a couple of weeks ago, someone was doing that. I think as actors we are always observing and taking things onboard. That to me is what is interesting about life. I don’t just mean sitting there trying to observe and seeing if I can find a character, I think being more open to people.

After the success of A Taste of Honey and The Knack … and How to Get it were you more free in choosing your roles?

Well, yes. I was lucky really. I did get a lot of scripts which were similar to the story of A Taste of Honey, which I didn’t do.

Rita in The Knack … and How to Get it

You’ve also worked in Italian cinema. Could you tell me more about this?

I have and I loved it. I did about six films in Italy. That was quite an experience because to begin with they didn’t always do shoot sync sound. You’d be talking on set and if you were doing a tracking shot the gaffer would be talking to the operator and things like that. Unusual things would happen. I loved the Italians because they are full of life and energy.

Was there a big contrast working in Italian cinema compared to British cinema?

Well yes because they didn’t speak English! When you are on a set you can more or less say that person is on sound, that person is our director, this person is makeup. You can more or less tell what their role is on the unit. But honestly no not really. I also filmed with James Ivory in India and that was wonderful as well. You get used to it and you have to. On your first day on set you are obviously quite nervous and everything, but once you get into it on the second or third day you realise this is how it is going to be. You have to take that onboard and embrace it. Then it makes it much easier for you because people are going to do things in different ways. Sometimes that comes from the director who has certain things he likes to do. It is never the same and yet it is the same. I know that’s a contradiction but you get the same joy out of it, but all different little eccentricities and things.

You also played a role in Doctor Zhivago. What was your experience like working on the film?

Yes, that was wonderful! Working with Sir Alec Guinness was just a dream. We got on so well. It was a rather nicely closely knit unit. We all stayed in the same hotel and had dinner at night. It was lovely because when we were in Madrid, everyone was in different hotels. You didn’t have that warm sort of feeling. It was wonderful to do.

Is there a film, or role which you are most proud of?

I haven’t made it yet! I don’t think you can ever rest on your laurels. With age comes different things. You can look back and think that was a lovely story, but you can’t think that was my favourite. I think if you did then that would be it and you would stop. That’s something I wouldn’t want to do. You all set out to make a good film, you don’t set out to make a bad film, but there are certain wonderful experiences that you get on every film you do. You do learn things and you think I won’t be doing that again, or I’ll do this. You learn as you go along. You always learn. Believe me, at my age I’m still learning. I think that’s the joy of the business really.

What’s the best advice a director has given you?

It’s not so much advice. I always feel a director is holding the reins and if it’s not quite right, then he or she will tug at the reins. You do rely a lot on if it’s what the director feels is right as it’s what he is seeing as a whole. You are just seeing it and thinking about what you did during that take. You are not observing from a distance. I think you really have to be guided by your director. It is teamwork and you rely on each other. When you get on and block a scene in a morning it is very different from looking at it on a piece of paper in the script. You get there and suddenly you are affected by the location and the props that are there. There are so many things. It’s not just the actors that are important. Without everyone you wouldn’t be able to make the film.

Are you currently working on any projects?

I did a project called Ridley Road for RED production. That was a story about 1962 during the fascist movement. It’s a very interesting piece and I loved working on Ridley Road. Lisa Mulcahy directed that and there were four parts. Then I did a piece called The Responder, which is a cameo role, playing Martin Freeman’s mother. That was shot in Liverpool. He was wonderful to work with. That will be coming out maybe toward the end of the year. I also did a short film called Ellicit about the struggles of dementia. Last year I did a film called The Owners with Maisie Williams. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic there wasn’t an official cinema release.

You also play a role in the upcoming Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho.

Working with Edgar Wright was a revelation. He’s an amazing director and an extraordinary person. It was wonderful to work with him because you could see his mind working all the time and he just knows film so well. He’s so knowledgeable. He was looking all the time to see if he could get the most from a scene. I don’t mean in a difficult way, just embracing the scene and making it the best it could possibly be. Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie are both wonderful actors too. I play quite a normal type of person. It’s coming out towards the end of October. Edgar’s films are always interesting. Richard Lester is a very good friend of mine and I speak to him every day. Edgar is a huge fan, so I arranged for them to get together and meet. We spent a day together which was lovely. They just sat and chatted and that was great. It’s always nice doing that.

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