Lesley-Anne Down ('13th Child: The Jersey Devil')
’Wonder Woman: The Life and Times of Lesley-Anne Down’
British actress Lesley-Ann Down became a celebrity at a very young age, thanks to her winning several teen beauty contests. In films since the age of 15, Down achieved international prominence for her recurring appearances as Lady Georgina on the British TV serial ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, which ran from 1976 through 1977. At that same time, she became an alluring movie sex symbol by virtue of her co-starring turn in ’The Pink Panther Strikes Again’ (1976).
Down's television work has also been most rewarding, including a starring role as bewitching Southern belle Madeline Main in the 1985 miniseries ’North and South’ and its 1986 sequel. As colorful a personality off-camera as on, Down’s latest venture into movies is in ’The 13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil’ alongside both Cliff Robertson and Robert Guillaume. In the film, people are being killed by someone or something using superhuman strength. A clever DA Assistant is sent to investigate. Is this just a way to commit the perfect murder or will the legend of the Jersey Devil prove to be true?
Chatting now with the lady herself, it’s very quickly evident that Lesley’s ability to not only hold court in conversation but control in tangential extremes is no mean feat. Having chatted first about seemingly all things me, I eventually got Lesley back on track (which was a recurring adventure) and asked her what she was up to on this very morning of my phone call. “I’m at home doing a photo-shoot as we speak. It’s one of those at home things for ‘Hello’ magazine,’ she laughs.
What are your memories of this new film, ’The 13th Child: Legend of the New Jersey Devil’? ”Well, it wasn’t made last Halloween, so it had to have been the Halloween before. I remember because I couldn’t get back for my little boy’s Halloween.”
You don’t seem to have a lot of screen time in this film?! ”No, about two-and-a-half seconds,” she sarcastically responds. ”I shot it in a day and a tiny bit, but I think there’s one scene with myself and the girl detective girl that hit the cutting room floor! She’s driving in a car and I’m on the phone, but they felt it was better in voice-over for some reason. It was a little day’s gig and it was something that I’ve never done, playing an Attorney General.”
So, was that the only reason you took the role?! ”Well, number one I’m a mother and I would totally and utterly prefer not to work, truly! If I could win the lottery, you know, like $61 million dollars and then give half to the taxman, I would be very thrilled! And I would probably never work again because I’ve been working since I was ten. And now I’m about to turn fifty so that’s forty years! Most people get a gold watch, don’t they and then expect retirement!”
How do you feel the industry has changed over the past decades? ”It’s changed so very much. From the time when I was younger and was in the limelight, which is very much a product of being young, the people that I have worked with were very much left-over from the ‘70s and even the ‘80s! It was a very much left-over industry. There was still a kind of old-fashioned feel to filmmaking and people had respect, if you like and you had to come up through the ranks. And the people who ran the industry were much older and they had huge track records, so you got to work with some phenomenal people. And the industry has changed so much now. For instance, on the ‘13th Child’ the crew were students! They were kids and it’s just a very different world out there and it’s not the world of the lead role or whatever. It’s an eat you and spit you out world today. When that script came through, from my point of view, it was like being able to play an Attorney General was going to be a hoot and only a days work! Even better, and so that’s why!”
What’s the pay like for that kind of quick gig? ”You get enough pay to pay about seven months mortgage,” she laughs.
Did you know about the supposed folklore of this ‘Jersey Devil’ prior to filming?! ”No, I had no idea. In fact, I thought when I read it that it was a made up story and it wasn’t till I got down there that I started to talk to everybody that I found out it was true. And very, very much believed in those parts of the world.”
Any of your past films compare to this experience? ”Yeah, a comparable thing would be Dracula. I did a movie called ‘Countess Dracula’  many years ago and a few years after that I did a film called ‘Pope Joan’  and we were filming in Transylvania – actually in Romania – and everywhere there’s great bulbs of garlic hanging over every door. So, completely and utterly it was the same thing.”
With all the things that go on in your life – kids, jobs, husband, etc. – when DO you get time for yourself?! ”Oh, I don’t know, … but I’m also on a soap opera [‘The Bold And The Beautiful’ - Jacqueline Payne] as well,” she makes me aware laughing. [It’s at this stage that Lesley sarcastically – or perhaps not – starts chanting from the chorus to ‘Wonder Woman’!] ”It’s kind of a double-edged question and I’ll tell you why. If you are an actress then you DO have to find the time for yourself to keep up the face and the nails! And quite frankly my child and my family are me. So, the time that I get to spend around them is the time for me and doing ‘The Bold & The Beautiful’ is highly the gift of job from heaven if you happen to be a parent! Because my work schedule averages three days a week and so you truly get to have a life and the hours are tremendous. My day is eight hours door-to-door. I walk out and I’m back eight hours later.”
Any time left in the week for you to exercise? ”No, I don’t go to the gym. That’s one thing I can’t do as that eats up too much time. So I have some eight pounders in the closet so if I’m changing or whatever I’m doing I can use them for a period of time … and I walk the dog! Quite frankly, from an actors point of view my body isn’t all it should be,” she laughs. ”But, on the other hand I do make it work.”
How long have you been on ‘The Bold & The Beautiful’ now? ”Oh gosh, I didn’t start it until March so only seven months.”
Are there any comparisons between that and your infamous British soap opera from days gone by, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’? ”Oh God, no, there’s no correlation whatsoever. It’s like saying do you want to live in Downtown LA or in Malibu. There’s no way you can compare a soap opera to anything. I mean, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was the ultimate soap opera because it was so good, but there is no rehearsal on these things. It’s truly acting from the hip. Now, on ‘B&B’ they’re very sweet and so you do your scene and they pay attention. And perhaps they’ll ask you to try it one more time to try something else, but only as much time as they can afford.”
Why is ‘B&B’ so damn popular?! ”The thing about ‘B&B’ that I didn’t know till I joined is that it’s the #1 soap opera in the world. And in 101-102 countries this show is in prime time! It’s a very strange world where nobody works and nobody eats! The extras eat but we just sit there prodding a fork around and stuff like that!”
And you’ve also done one called ‘Sunset Beach’! ”Yes, and that was very ‘culty’ in England. On a Saturday they would have a ‘Sunset Beach’ omnibus and they would take all the episodes of that week and they would play them from One o’clock until Five o’clock. I went over to England when they were running ‘Sunset’ – which was about five years ago - to do some publicity and I couldn’t believe it! Honestly, everybody wanted to do something with me. Big name papers, little TV shows and they were all talking about it as if it was something amazing and I suddenly realized that it was something new to them all. ‘Sunset’ was so out there and it had such crazy plot lines and was just so weird! It was Aaron Spelling’s first venture into daytime and it was probably his last!”
Having lived in America for all these years now, what do you miss most about living in England?”Erm, well I suppose I’d have to say my family, straight away. I mean, my mother’s gone now unfortunately, but I miss my relatives and I guess just popping down the road to the High Street. I miss the architecture and I miss the lovely summers days and being able to wander around and just sit outside a nice Italian restaurant. I miss all that.”
You were once voted the ‘Most Beautiful Teenager in Britain’ in 1970, but how did you exactly earn that title?! ”Yeah, I kinda remember that and people bring that up all the time and ask me about it and my answer is I honestly don’t know how it all happened,” she laughs. ”But, I’m sure that every other mother of every other teenager has disagreed with that verdict.”
Did you get a nice trophy for that then?! ”A trophy,” she sarcastically retorts ”No. You know what, it’s probable looking back, but I had about four boxes; big huge boxes full of clippings and photographs and just stuff. I’d collected all this over the years and then I’d just bunged it all into boxes. It was a huge, out of control collection and there was absolutely just no more room for these boxes so the lady who’d done my fan mail she took all this stuff and sorted it all out! It was quite amazing what got in the papers about me looking back!”
What did you garner from all this new memory re-organization?! ”Truly, I didn’t really have a career until ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ for the most part. I mean I did the ‘Hammer House of Horror’ films and stuff like that but from the word go when I was 12 – well, when I was 10 because my parents were taken to court because my Headmistress found me at a fashion show – I got into the newspapers,” she laughs. ”I was in the Daily Express in my little school uniform and then when I was 12 I went and danced in an interview with The Young Generation for Rolf Harris. They were the girls and boys that danced on the show and I got a job on The Young Generation. But then it came out that I was only 12 and not 15, as I’d lied, so I couldn’t do it from then! Then I kinda met photography and did photo sessions and I was always in the newspapers! Silly things like ‘Voted Britain’s Most Beautiful Teenager’ and things like that with no work to back it up! I guess, just constantly being in the newspapers people back then read them and somewhere my name must have stuck in their head! And then ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ came along.”
How was the interview process for that back then?”Well, I interviewed, and I interviewed and I interviewed for that and got it … and I was really in the newspapers then,” she laughs. ”They were very, very, very, very, very careful about the casting always on that show. They didn’t take anything lightly and it was a very long time before they cast that part. They had to because darling Nicola Pagett who played Elizabeth and was phenomenal in that part, when her character left there was a definite void and a role to fill. They needed to bring in a young person who could create basic excitement. So, they knew what they were doing and I’m so thrilled that they chose me.”
And what was it like to be surrounded by such a stellar cast at that time? ”They were adorable, but it was scary because when I joined it I was a huge fan as it had been on the air for two years and I wasn’t an actress … I was a FAN! So, for me walking onto the set for the very time that I was there I was just like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s the Morning Room’! I was just so star struck of the sets, forget even the people. It was just really intense and amazing.”
Talking of your days in photography, have there ever been any nude photos taken of you taken?! ”Oh yeah, I’m sure there’s even some of them on the internet. I did a photo shoot, bloody hell, at age seventeen with Kirk Douglas’ son Peter!
It’s a long story, but I did it as a favor to him as he was trying to break into the world of photography! But then Playboy were interested in me, and believe me the figures have gone down over the years. It started at $250,000 and it would be about two and six now,” she laughs. ”Well, it would be now, wouldn’t it. I mean, who would want to see it?!” she adds, referring to herself! ”So, we did this thing and he got me to scrawl my name on a piece of paper and I gave him the right to do something with the photos. Anyway, he sold them, but not even to Playboy. I think it was Mayfair or one of those ghastly magazines and then I got a lawyer and got them all back. But, nevertheless, people have them. But do I care? Not particularly. I mean, they’re old. They’re antiquey.”
What are your memories of these past film roles?
’School for Unclaimed Girls’ (1969) - ”I had never done anything before and I was 12 years-old and I had met the Director who had liked me a lot and kindly offered me this part. The background story to my part was that I was in the remand home because I tried to kill myself! So, my biggest memories of that film, and this one you never saw on screen, was that every morning they gave me all these lovely slashes on my wrists! And the first shot was of me dancing and of course, I just stood there like a lemon! So, he said action again, and again, but I just stood there with a smile on my face! I was just waiting for him to say ’Go’! I was amazed, I had no idea when I was making that film that it was such an out-there film of its time with the lesbianism and all that! It was really borderline.”
’The Pink Panther Strikes Again’ (1976) - ”Oh God, was I lucky to get that, or what?! You know, Maude Adams was doing that part and something happened, and I don’t know why or what, but she’d been filming for two days and then she wasn’t doing it anymore. So, they recast it and I went along and met Blake [Edwards] ”and it was lucky because I got to work with the great, Peter Sellers. That opened up such a lot for me in terms of people in my life. Because I got very friendly with Peter and I remember, not so much even the movie, but the residual of the movie having dinner with him and Marty Feldman, and Spike [Milligan] and all those people! It was just lovely and just to spend time with him and be his friend for a short time was just heaven.”
’Death Wish V: The Face of Death’ (1994) - ”Oh, well, I was a neighbor of Charlie [Bronson] as he lived next door to us back in the ‘80s and I was friendly with him and Jill [Ireland] and my sister was living with me at that time and was dating poor Jason [Bronson] who’s dead now also. So, we were all kinda friends and when Charlie wanted somebody to play his wife he suggested me. And what are you gonna say to Charlie, ‘No’?! It was good and it was very funny and then I worked with Charlie again about two years later on a TV movie called ‘Family of Cops’.”
Having been such a close friend, what are your thoughts now with regard the recent death of Charles Bronson? ”He had a really interesting, and a very fulfilled life and we should all remember that. We should all try and live our lives as well and as fully as we possible can and hope to have as good a life as Charlie and live as long as he had.”
Being a mother, what’s one of the funniest things that one of your children has ever asked or said to you? ”It’s quite funny ‘cause the other day my son looked at me in the car, ‘cause he’s only five, and he said: ‘Mummy, how can I get out of your tummy.’ So, I told him that it’s quite difficult sometimes to get the babies out of the tummy and then he asked if it hurt! I couldn’t believe it so I told him ‘a little bit’ and he then asked me if I cried! So I told him that if I did that it was kind of a happy oweee!”
Finally, what’s the most interesting thing to know about you? ”Oh fudge, that is so hard that question! That is just so hard,” she laughs. ”That is just so hard. That’s the kind of question you have to ask your husband, isn’t it! Maybe you should talk to him about that! You know, I don’t even think I’m particularly interesting, that’s the first thing!”
It’s right about now (’funk soul brother’) that Lesley hands the phone over to her husband Don for some possible verbal aid. Now, as it turns out, Don has a really bad sore throat from a cold, but he still manages to get his brain in gear and have the answer ready: ”She’s a fabulous cook. She cooks so many wonderful dishes, but I would say her best is Salmon En Cruet. I mean she’s really happy when she’s cooking and entertaining and she loves having people around her. She has a wonderful magnetism towards life and happiness.”
As the phone is handed back to Lesley, she immediately comes back on the line with a thought: ”It’s funny he should say that because I was just standing here thinking that!”
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
To win a brand new AND PERSONALLY AUTOGRAPHED DVD of Lesley's latest film, '13th Child: The Legend of the Jersey Devil' just tell me in which movie she starred as the character 'Hooker Nurse'?! Then, just send an e:mail to me with the subject title '13TH CHILD' and the answer in the text to: