Jenny Runacre had an uncanny experience when she saw herself in a 43-year-old film recently. The woman on screen was her, but the voice was not hers.
“Maybe the film had been dubbed into Italian and then dubbed back into English with another actor. Or maybe they didn’t like my voice and changed it to someone else’s,” she says in a voice of a more seductive, deeper timbre than the one I had heard on film.
If Runacre’s voice has been erased, that would be fitting. Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, which is now being revived in a digitally improved version, is about changing identities. It could have been called The Man Who Mistook Himself for a Corpse. Its protagonist, played by Jack Nicholson, is a TV journalist called David Locke who is covering a civil war in a nameless African republic. He is sick of himself, professionally burned out, and his marriage is on the rocks. Then he sees a way out. He swaps identities with a lookalike man whose body he finds in a hotel room. Little does he know that the man he has become is a rebel gun-runner whom government hitmen want to rub out. He becomes, unwittingly at first, a politically committed freedom fighter rather than the detached observer of a struggle that he was in his previous life.
Runacre plays Rachel, Locke’s estranged wife and a fellow journalist, whom we see in London with her lover, played by Steven Berkoff. Rachel and a colleague edit the footage her husband filmed in the desert, looking for clues as to why he died. “I’d just been in a fringe play with Steven called Hot Pants, but this was very different,” she says. “And very different from the Hollywood villains Steven usually played.”
Runacre’s role as the estranged wife is key to Antonioni’s film. In flashback, we see Rachel observing her husband as he interviews the republic’s dictator. After the interview, she berates him. “You involve yourself in real situations, but you’ve got no real dialogue. Why didn’t you tell that man …”
“… that he’s a liar?” replies David.
“I know, but those are the rules.”
“I don’t like to see you keep them.”
“He’s not true to his ideals. He’s lost his integrity,” explains Runacre over coffee at her flat in Chelsea, London. “He’s become a void, which is why she leaves him.”
What does Runacre remember of being directed by Antonioni, the auteur of Blow-Up, L’Avventura and Zabriskie Point, who had a reputation for being difficult for actors to work with?
“There was a very basic script [co-written by Antonioni, with film theorist Peter Wollen and Mark Peploe, who would go on to write Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor], but a lot of the time I was just staring out of a window. I was very good at that!”
The film is a masterpiece of enigmatic film-making from a virtuoso of silences.
“He loathed explanations and cut them wherever possible so the film is almost silent. You’d work not knowing what you were doing. I thought, if he’s unhappy with what I’m doing he will tell me. On set, though, he wouldn’t really talk to you directly, but would often send over another person who would say: ‘The maestro would like you to do this or that.’ How lovely to be called maestro!”
And what of Nicholson and Maria Schneider, credited only as the Girl, with whom Locke gallivants around Europe and Africa, all the while pursued by hitmen until the film’s tragic denouement?
“It was an unusually quiet performance that Antonioni got out of Jack – very different from those excitable performances he gave in Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.”
Nicholson was accompanied during the 10-week shoot through Algeria, Spain and London by his then-girlfriend Anjelica Huston.
“He was notoriously promiscuous and, despite Anjelica being there, flirted with the girls on the set and they with him.” Including her? “No. I wasn’t interested. Instead, I formed a bond with Maria and her girlfriend Joey, an American photographer she was devoted to, and who was treated for psychosis soon after filming finished on The Passenger. Maria hated Hollywood and had had terrible experiences.”
Schneider was just 19 when she appeared in Bertolucci’s notorious Last Tango in Paris (1972). “She told me she didn’t know in advance there were going to be nude scenes.” In the film, Marlon Brando’s character, Paul, rapes Schneider’s character, Jeanne, using a stick of butter as lubricant. In a 2007 interview, Schneider said the scene wasn’t in the original script, and that Brando and Bertolucci had told her about it just before they began filming.
The director, who died earlier this year, later acknowledged that he had sprung the scene on Schneider at the last minute, because he wanted her onscreen humiliation and rage to be real. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act,” he said.
Runacre says: “She told me that she wasn’t actually buggered but that she was utterly humiliated by the way Bertolucci treated her.”
After The Passenger was screened at Cannes in 1975, cast and director rose for the expected applause, only to be booed. “They were booing Maria for her scandalous performance in Last Tango. She got the blame, not Bertolucci.” It was in a sense a second violation.
The Passenger didn’t win that year’s Palme d’Or and has gone into relative obscurity since. “One reason for that is that Jack bought the rights to the film and it was little shown.” Why? “Maybe he didn’t like his performance. He should have, though.”
Runacre got the role in The Passenger because Antonioni had admired her debut performance in John Cassavetes’ 1970 film Husbands. She was a drama student when she auditioned to play a young English woman with whom Cassavetes’ character has a dalliance while on a trip to London with his pals, played by Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, when the three of them are going through a collective midlife crisis after the death of a friend.
“I got the part, then forgot about it, graduated and went to Scarborough and played in rep – stuff like Agatha Christie and Pinocchio. While I was there, we were all drinking Guinness, so I put on a bit of weight. Then I got the call from Cassavetes saying I’d got the role. I went back to London and Ben Gazzara said to me: ‘You’ve put on weight – better lose it.’ People wouldn’t speak that way now. But I slimmed down very quickly.”
She loved working on the film, particularly an early scene of mostly improvised flirtation with Cassavetes. “It was a great introduction to film for me because I had been learning the Stanislavski method and here I was learning something very different from Cassavetes.”
Husbands proved such a critical success that Cassavetes advised her to hurry to Hollywood. Why didn’t you go? “I didn’t want Hollywood upending my life – or the humiliations that Maria was exposed to.”
Yet, while raising a family in London, Runacre worked with some of cinema’s leading directors. She appeared in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales, Tony Richardson’s Joseph Andrews, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, John Huston’s The MacKintosh Man and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. In the last of these she played both Elizabeth I and Bod, a member of a roaming, murderous gang of anarchists that also included Toyah Willcox and punk icon Jordan.
Of those film-makers, who was the biggest monster? “I’ve got no complaints with any of them, apart from Derek. He once shouted at me that I was driving too fast when we drove to Cannes to show Jubilee in 1978. He was right – I did drive too fast, so the car broke down. When we arrived, everything was stolen from our hotel room. And the people at the festival hated our punk gear – they thought we were ugly.” She continues: “I loved working with Derek, because it was all DIY, making our costumes and sets. You’d never get that in Hollywood.”
Although she has acted throughout her career, on stage, film and TV (she was, for instance, Brenda Champion in Charles Sturridge’s 80s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited), Runacre reinvented herself as a visual artist in the 90s and later taught performance art in west London. Her installation At Least I’ve got my Visual Stimulus is a Beckett-like piece featuring Runacre as a woman on stage talking unstoppably (the stimulant is telly), and her performance piece Bring Your Own Barbie involves the artist deconstructing a mannequin that looks a little like her. It is almost as if Runacre is erasing her body double – Antonioni would have appreciated its critique of identity. “You know what I learned from the film? We’re all passengers really.”
Runacre, now 72 and elegantly clad in skinny jeans and a boucle jacket, tells me her next role will be in Alexandre Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias at Waterloo East theatre in London in March.
Does she wish she had become a Hollywood star? “Well, I certainly didn’t, did I? None of my films has gone on general release. Every one of them went straight to art houses. Not that I mind. I was in fringe theatre and then I had kids and then I got into making art. I’ve loved that life, and I still do.”