Jane Seymour, Queen of the Mini-Series
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE
Published: October 16, 1988
When journalists describe Jane Seymour as the queen of the mini-series, as they do with increasing frequency these days, her agent gets worried. Doesn't it suggest she's a one-medium performer? Isn't it time she established herself as a power on the big screen, too? But the actress herself defiantly declares that the title makes her proud. And one must agree that if there were such a throne, no one has a better claim to it than Miss Seymour.
In 1988 alone she has appeared, or is about to appear, in no fewer than four mini-series. Already this year she's been seen demurely precipitating Edward VIII's abdication and more robustly enchanting Aristotle Onassis, as Wallis Simpson and Maria Callas, respectively. On Friday from 9 to 11 P.M., CBS will air the first installment of its two-part ''Jack the Ripper,'' in which she plays a flame-haired Victorian artist. (The second installment will be broadcast next Sunday.) And next month there will be the start of what would be better described as a mega-, maxi- or jumbo series, ABC's adaptation of Herman Wouk's ''War and Remembrance,'' with Miss Seymour caught in the coils of Hitler's Europe for a daunting 30 hours.
When it comes to mini-series, Miss Seymour has a queenly bio. In fact, she seems genuinely stumped when asked how many she has made. She began doing them in number 17 years ago after playing Solitaire in the movie ''Live and Let Die'' and deciding to prove that she wasn't just another of James Bond's characterless sex objects. Since then, she's had leading roles in television adaptations of Steinbeck and Hemingway, Daphne du Maurier and Danielle Steele, in Gaston Leroux's ''Phantom of the Opera'' and in Baroness Orczy's ''Scarlet Pimpernel.'' She's been Bathsheba and one of President Kennedy's mistresses and, in ABC's ''Dark Mirror'' in 1984, a pair of twins, one diabolical and the other saintly.
No other actress, perhaps, is better acquainted with the rewards and trials of making these television micro-epics. She talks about absurdly hectic schedules, with casting decisions often left to the last moment. Filming may start with virtually no notice and can't overrun an allotted time because the network involved will almost certainly have announced broadcast dates. Normally, shooting is crammed into less than one-tenth of the time it would take to complete a feature film of equivalent length. When Miss Seymour played Callas in ''Onassis: The Richest Man in the World,'' she didn't know who would be playing Onassis (Raul Julia) or Jackie Kennedy (Francesca Annis) until a few days before they all met on location in Spain. And when she got up one pleasant morning in France, she didn't know that 24 hours later she would be in England, girding herself to face the cameras as Wallis Simpson. If she wasn't there, she was informed, ''The Woman He Loved'' couldn't go ahead.
Over the years, though, Miss Seymour has become choosy about her roles in mini-series and turns down many more than she accepts. ''I have to think the material extremely good and I have to feel I can do something special with my role, that it will stretch me as an actress.'' Indeed, she turned down the part in ''Jack the Ripper'' when it was first offered, though for an unusual reason. A short time earlier she had suffered a violent reaction to an injection of antibiotic. ''My tongue went back in my throat, my throat closed, the room flew from side to side . . . Afterward they told me I was 30 seconds from death. 'Jack the Ripper' seemed a bit too close to what I had just experienced.''
But then she decided that its very closeness - violent death, graphically portrayed - was actually a good reason for doing ''Jack.'' It was cathartic and it also gave her a chance to act with Michael Caine, whom she much admires. ''I have some nice moments with him,'' she said, ''and I like my character too. She's a sketch artist, a rather typical pre-Raphaelite, not upper middle class but a working woman and quite spunky. Not a huge part, but then I'm a great believer in what Laurence Olivier says: There are no small parts, only small actors.''
''War and Remembrance,'' however, does give her a large part, one of the largest in the history of mini-series. She plays Natalie Jastrow, an American who believes herself safe in Europe and isn't particularly aware of her Jewish blood until she finds herself the victim of Nazi persecution and, eventually, of Auschwitz itself. Miss Seymour could identify with that for two reasons. Her real name is Joyce Frankenberg (she chose the screen name Jane Seymour, after a wife of Henry VIII, because it seemed more salable). Her mother, a Dutchwoman, was interned by the Japanese during the war and saw her fellow prisoners die or go mad. Her father is the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland and himself lost cousins in the Holocaust.
''Like Natalie I'd never really thought of myself as Jewish, never studied Hebrew, knew nothing about the religion,'' said Miss Seymour. ''I found myself realizing that precisely what happened to her could have happened to me. And like her I ended up quite proud of my Jewish heritage. It was less an acting job, really, than a personal pilgrimage.''
Certainly the mission undertaken by the film unit made acting almost gratuitous. For what Miss Seymour calls a ''terrible, exhausting, horrendous'' nine months, they moved from country to country, sometimes working 17 or 18 hours a day seven days a week: West Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Poland - worst of all Poland. She has memories of stumbling and coughing half-naked through scenes when it was 26 below zero, and of being trapped in a car in a snowdrift at midnight with a driver who spoke no English.
Finally, there were the scenes filmed inside Auschwitz itself. Often the filming continued through the night. Miss Seymour didn't really feel she was acting. Stripped and violently hosed down with water, she was left covering her breasts in a room filled with naked, bald extras. ''You're so demeaned, you're like cattle,'' she said. ''You lose all comprehension of being human beings. And there's a presence in that place of something horrendous having happened. I swear you can smell dead flesh. Even now I can't watch the scenes we shot there without trembling.''
Miss Seymour is a great defender of mini-series, for all their pressures and limitations. To her, they are the art form of our time, a chance to present a vast public with book adaptations and other material it would never otherwise know. For her as an actress, they have been the equivalent of a repertory company, permitting her to take a variety of parts. ''I've been able to play comedy,'' she said, ''character, ugly, foreign, vamps, and dark and crazy.''
Miss Seymour has learned to arrive on the set well prepared. She's read biographies or histories that might be relevant. Before playing Natalie, for example, she learned the basics of Hebrew and Yiddish, and before portraying Callas she took singing lessons and spent hours listening to the diva's records. In the event that there's been a muddle in the costume department, she always brings along substitute dresses of her own. She does everything she can in advance with her makeup and hair. And she's word-perfect when the cameras begin to turn - though she is also prepared to adjust if something unexpected happens.
''I climb inside the character,'' she said. ''I live there, I know what she's going through at that time, but I'm open. If they suddenly changed a scene, I've a clear idea of how she'd respond to that emotional moment, and I do so.'' In ''War and Remembrance'' she kept acting when the camp guards forgot that they shouldn't beat her over the head and knocked her almost unconscious. She kept going in ''Jamaica Inn'' when she was thrown to the ground so roughly that both her hands were badly cut. ''I knew the camera was on me, and I knew I was too injured to do the scene a second time. When that happens, you just have to play with it, make it work.''
Miss Seymour relishes the risk and sense of immediacy prevalent in mini-series. This has helped her become the ''dangerous'' actress that Peter Hall called her when he directed her in ''Amadeus,'' one of her rare theater appearances. On the other hand, she still squirms when she looks at a video of herself as Callas and sees how out of sync her lips are with the opera singer who was dubbed over her, or how rubbery her makeup looks when she plays Wallis Simpson in old age. She thinks that with less rush both errors could have been avoided.
Jane Seymour is only 37 and has plenty of possibilities open to her. She could make more feature films. She could appear more often onstage. She's done some journalistic work for the American television networks - including interviewing Prince Philip - and could conceivably build a career there. But there's also a part of her that wants to persevere with mini-series, become more involved with their production and, if possible, make them better.
''I'd like to develop my own material, and I'd like more time,'' she said. ''It shouldn't have to be a case of scuttling around hoping you can pull something out of the hat. I want to do features, yes, but I'd also like to see the advantages you find there brought to TV - the ablest actors, the most talented film makers. When there's such an enormous public, why deny them what they want? GETTING IT RIGHT - FAST
''Most mini-series could never be feature films because they need more length,'' says the actress Jane Seymour, ''so I'm grateful they're made at all.''
Miss Seymour will appear in a total of four of them in 1988 and can't remember exactly how many others she has done over the last 15 years. ''If people knew the conditions under which you churn them out, they wouldn't believe it,'' she says. ''You do eight or 10 pages a day, compared with maybe two-thirds of a page in a feature. You have to get it right the first take. If the camera crashes into you, perhaps they'll do a second; but they're not going to do so because of your acting. It's almost like doing theater or live TV.''
Indeed, Miss Seymour thinks that filming mini-series has become even more rushed of late. For ''East of Eden'' a decade ago, there were three days of rehearsal. Now there are usually none. This means that all moves have to be rigidly formulated before shooting begins, anathema to most actors.
Miss Seymour remembers the director of ''Jack The Ripper'' working all day with her, then all night in the cutting room. Much the same happened with ''Onassis: The Richest Man in the World.'' Once she was asked to learn a five-page scene that was being written while she prepared her hair, and to perform it as soon as her hairdo was completed. She had to convince herself and her viewers that she was singing Norma at La Scala when she was actually alone on the stage of a tiny theater with no orchestra pit. In one 21-hour day she had to do six opera house scenes, somehow changing every aspect of herself from Norma to Tosca to Medea.
''We stopped when the cameraman fell asleep, and was in danger of falling off his chair and cracking his head open.''