Patti D'Arbanville is a legend. She appeared in some of Andy Warhol's films whilst young, and was a model in the late-'60s in London, New York and Paris. She mastered French and her acting craft and spent a decade living and working in France. She has worked with some of cinema's great directors, and also distinguished herself on stage and in television. I talked to her about her extraordinary life.
What memories do you have of the student film you appeared in at the age of eight, TUESDAY AND BLUE SILK (1960)?
Actually, I remember quite a bit about it. I haven't been able to find it, but my mother has a whole bunch of things I should probably check through. It was done by some students from the New York University and won some kind of award. I was in it with a boy called Noah, but I don't remember his last name. Blue Silk was the name of a cat in the film. I was drawing with chalk on the sidewalk down the street from my house, and a guy came up and said ''Wow! This is exactly what we want for our movie!'' My mom had always told me to watch out for strange men approaching me and telling me things like "We're going to put you in a movie'', and here was a guy doing exactly that! I told him he would have to ask my mom and I ran home. My mom agreed, and she accompanied me when we were filming.
I had already been on TV before, actually. I had done a campaign with Ivory Soap. In 1999, I went back to the studios where I shot the commercial to shoot a soap opera called 'Guiding Light'. It was wild!
I was very interested in chess, and I used to go to this cafe across the street from my house called Cafe Figaro after school, or sometimes even during school! I would play chess with these older gentlemen who thought it was adorable that I could play the game. One day I was sitting with a man called Steve Winston, and these two guys walked in. One of them was really tall with a shock of red hair and the other guy looked like he had a squirrel on his head! They sat down at the table near the window and then the red-headed man approached me. Again I got asked if I wanted to be in a movie. I told him I would have to ask my mom, mainly just to check if he was on the up and up. At this point my mom was a free spirit and I was a bit of a wild child, let's say. My mom said "Fine", and away we went. I did FLESH (1968) with Joe Dallesandro and my friend Geraldine Smith, which Andy directed.
What were your first impressions of Warhol?
Andy always kind of reminded me of steam. He was there, but he was ephemeral. You always got the impression that he was thinking of something else while he was speaking with you. The only time I ever saw him truly concentrating on what I was saying was when I was teaching him how to crochet on the set of L'AMOUR (1973). He got quite good at it, and I also taught him how to knit.
He was a highly interesting man with a unique artistic vision. Andy spoke slowly with an indifferent cadence, and was vague in his direction on the films I made with him. He was quiet, reserved and very observant. He didn't miss a trick. Andy really enjoyed being the centre of attention as long as he thought no-one was looking at him. He was a strange individual in that way. I don't think he was very different from the image most people have of him, but he was definitely a deep person. Once you spoke with him, you realised that he had a lot going on. You wouldn't think it, but he did. Andy was painfully shy in fact, which I think had a lot to do with the way he spoke and presented himself.
Andy also looked like he wore the same clothes everyday, but he actually had a wardrobe with multiple versions of the same clothes in it. Which was comforting!
What impact did the Warhol era have on your subsequent career?
Well, during that period I wanted to work in the acting industry and be taken seriously. So I tried to distance myself from all of that. I never mentioned my connection in any interviews or to any colleagues because I thought they would look down on those films as fake or avant-garde. I think it was the right thing to do that at that time. I wouldn't have been taken seriously. None of the actors from Andy's films have ever really gone on to real acting careers. It's interesting now to look back at that period and see that I was involved in such a great period. At the time it didn't feel that way! I didn't feel like an Andy Warhol superstar, if you will.
Did acting come naturally to you?
Yeah it did actually. And I always wanted to do it. As a kid I would always perform tunes from the various shows that were on around town in front of my grandparents' guests. Performing came quite naturally.
In some of your films you have done nudity or appeared in sex scenes. Is it something you are comfortable with?
It doesn't bother me. I have always been in touch with my sexuality, and understood the kind of image I presented. I don't think I ever went too far with it.
Do you think erotic films like BILITIS (1977) and your beauty hurt your chances of getting certain roles?
I have always been able to work, and to come back pretty much when I felt like it. I got to raise my children, because I didn't want them raised by a nanny. I've only ever used one when I absolutely needed one, like when I starred in the TV series 'New York Undercover'. I have lost roles I wanted because of my looks, but what are you going to do? (Laughs.)
How did you get into modelling?
We would often go dancing at Max's Kansas City. It was a restaurant, where we would sit in the backroom and drink and eat and smoke. But there was this vast storage space upstairs where nothing was going on, so Mickey, the owner, decided he was going to use it for music. One night upstairs I ran into this amazingly flamboyant couple, Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos. Antonio was a world-renowned fashion illustrator who worked with the New York Times and various other high-end publications. He truly was an artist without compare in his field, and some of my friends have just put out a book about him. We started dancing, and later he said "I want to draw you''.
I went to his studio and he started to draw me. When you draw someone you can draw them to look any way you want them to look. I am a short woman, and I was a short girl. I am 5'4''. Some people saw the drawings and wanted to interview me for modelling work. When I turned up for the interview they signed me up on the spot, thinking that as I was young, I would continue to grow as tall as my mother, who was close to 6ft tall. I never grew another inch after that! It was quite a coup being signed so young by Wilhelmina Models. They worked with my lack of height, and I modelled in New York, followed by London. I went to Paris to put together my portfolio and then returned to London. I signed up with Models International and worked for a few years there. I was able to be successful because even though I was short, I was well-proportioned and looked taller in photographs than I actually was. Still, I couldn't work with other models because of my lack of height, so i did mainly beauty, legs and hand work.
What was London like in the 'Swinging Sixties'?
It was wonderful, we just had the best time. I was with an agency called Models One. I remember strolling along King Road. We would all go on our appointments and then we would all meet up at a restaurant called The Casserole. We would hang out and sometimes we could carry on through dinner. Then go home, change and go out again! We would dance until early morning. It was quite an interesting little life. It was exhausting, though, when I think about it! I certainly couldn't have a lifestyle like that now.
How did London compare with the likes of New York and Paris?
I just found London the most exciting. I loved the way the boys sounded with their English accents. It was a wonderful time to be young and in England.
Did you enjoy modelling?
I had a ball. I was working a lot. British girls are a bit smaller anyway, and the girls I was working with weren't much taller than me. One of my best friends, though, was a very tall Danish model called Kirsten Nefer, and everywhere we went we looked like Mutt 'n' Jeff!
How did you meet Cat Stevens?
I remember seeing him perform 'Matthew and Son' years before we actually met. You can see the clip on Youtube and it has dated a lot. But he looked so cute in his black and white suit. He had contracted tuberculosis and I met him after he got out of the sanitarium. He was smoking cigarettes! We met at a party in a house in the English countryside owned by William Piggott Brown, who had all sorts of people there. Steven (I called him by his real name, his real surname is Georgiou) and I just started talking, and that was it. We just connected on a very deep level. It was lovely.
Who was at that party?
Everybody in the music industry that you would want to know was there at that party - Stevie Winwood, Ginger Baker, some of The Beatles. It was surreal. I remember listening to and idolising The Beatles when I was 13, and here I am, 16 or 17, hanging out with them.
It sounds like every day was a mindblowing experience!
It was! Funnily enough, I was with my friend Pamela Des Barres about 12 years ago at a birthday party for Bob Dylan at Tom Petty's house (as you do!). We were talking about the old days with George Harrison and he said to me "You're a legend''. I laughed and said "You are George Harrison and you are calling me a legend?" Fun times!
Have you ever considered writing an autobiography?
People tell me I should write a book, and I have been offered money over the years to write one, but I don't have the discipline and I don't feel the need to reveal intimate, sweet, lovely things that would hurt or embarass anybody in any way. My story is their story too. I don't fault anybody else for doing it, but it's just not for me.
Cat Stevens wrote two songs for you ('Lady Darbanville' and 'Wild World'). How does it feel to be immortalised in these songs?
I quite like 'Wild World', but 'Lady Darbanville' is about me - dead. I found that weird. I got a lot of publicity and interview requests from that song, but it was odd, because I didn't have much to do with it, apart from supplying the name. The period when I was with Steven was a bittersweet time. I was sorry to hurt him. But he fell on his feet. He was a sweetheart. I haven't spoken to him in years. I hope he is well and happy. I hear he has a big family. That's terrific.
How does modelling compare to acting?
They are much different. You have to be disciplined in both areas, but you have to be really really disciplined and punctual for movies. I learned that very quickly. I was late once and I was never late again. It was on the set of THE MAIN EVENT (1979) with Barbra Streisand. She called me into her trailer and pretty much read me the Riot Act. I just sat there and took it. She was signing my paycheque! "You don't keep people waiting. They're on the clock. They're getting paid whether you show up or not. You don't do things like that in this industry. You'd better get a move on. " After that, I understood.
Which industry do you prefer?
Modelling is fun when you're a kid. But it's basically standing there and making clothes look good! Bring a book! It's not that stimulating. I prefer acting. I'm an artist. I'm an actress. I studied to do what I do, and I take it seriously.
When did you begin studying acting?
It was after I got back from Europe. I decided that since I was acting in French movies I needed to take acting lessons. I was fluent in French but I didn't sound like a French person. As I had an American passport, I thought "Why not go home and learn my craft?" I decided to take it seriously and I studied with Herbert Berghoff in New York. He invited me to the playwright's classes. These were classes where he wanted students to be introduced to playwrights who were coming up. It was a big honour. He was devastated when I told him I was leaving for California because I had a part in a movie. He wanted me to be in the theatre. Herbert taught me well and he was a lovely, lovely man. Later I studied improvisation with Howard Storm in Los Angeles. You also learn a lot by just working.
How did you end up acting in quite a few French films in the '70s?
I was in a pub in London one day, and guess what? Another man approached me and asked if I wanted to be in a movie! This time I didn't have to ask my mother! The movie was called LA MAISON (1970), and starred Michele Simon, who was the Charles Laughton of France back then. It was a sweet little story about a young American girl who travels to France and winds up at an old mansion. It was written and directed by Gerard Brach, who wrote many of Roman Polanski's films. The film was only a minor success, because people expected something different from Brach, but it did get me started in an acting career in France, where I stayed for quite a while. They told me I could have the role if I could learn French in two months. They put me with a French teacher. She spoke to me in French for three or four hours each day. They put me up in a hotel in Paris and after two months I learned enough to be able to do the role at least. I just took to it. It was a language that just opened itself up to me after three or four weeks, although I was frustrated with my progress up to that point. I was telling my teacher that we needed to find a new approach. But when she asked me to get her a glass of water in French I quickly understood and got up and got it. It just clicked in at that moment. I think she was just waiting for me to get so frustrated. It was definitely some kind of technique she had. It was wild, but it worked! I've been speaking French since then.
Did you enjoy making the film?
I think it was the first real film that I had done, and Brach was the first real filmmaker I had worked with. I'm proud of it, if only for that.
How did living in France compare to living in the US?
It's apples and oranges! I loved the idea of going out and buying your food every day as you needed it. I never had fresh produce like it in America. I loved everything about France. My family is of French extraction. I just felt very much at home the minute I got there. I can't explain it.
Was there a marked difference for you between the '60s and the '70s?
In the '70s, everything got a lot more slick and the people who had been so dedicated to communal living and being hippies suddenly became disco queens and polyester babies dancing to Donna Summer. It was a complete 180 degrees. We went from the Summer of Love to the disco ball! It's been a steady progression since. The music has changed quite for the better and it's come back around to some really wonderful stuff happening.
What were some of your favourites from the films you made in the '70s?
I don't really have anything that I am absolutely proud of, to tell you the truth. I'm hyper-critical of my work and other people's work. Actually, I think I have done my best work on television.
Which TV work are you the most proudest of?
I very much like 'My So-Called Life'. I loved my Rose Boscorelli on 'Third Watch' and
Lorraine Calluzzo on 'The Sopranos'. I also loved playing Virginia Cooper on 'New York Undercover'. It was a wonderful character - a feisty, no holds-barred, 'my way or the highway' kind of woman. I enjoyed it immensely.
It must have been a great experience working on 'The Sopranos'.
It was wild. Although I only had four episodes on it, I had the time of my life. It was very strange because everybody was pretty much in character all the time. It was scary. I was very much exposed to that lifestyle for real because I grew up in New York. Little Italy is surrounded by the Mob. I knew people like that. Boy, did they really get that right on 'The Sopranos'.
How about your role in 'Wiseguy' as Theresa 'Amber' Twine?
That was fun too. That was pretty much my first foray into television. Working with Ken Wahl was terrific. He's a wonderful guy.
You must be proud of winning a Drama-Logue Award for the stage play 'Italian American Reconciliation' in 1987.
That was great, and a wonderful experience. Creating that role for John Patrick Shanley was quite a high point in my career. Unfortunately, because I had three small children I couldn't really pursue a career in theatre. I wasn't going to sacrifice my time with my kids in the morning for anything. That goes quickly.
How was working with John Milius on BIG WEDNESDAY (1978)?
John is quite a character, and I like him very much. But I do remember that we would have rehearsals down at the beach and he would have his gun and shoot horseshoe crabs, which was not exactly delightful! He would have a big cigar in his mouth. He looked like the Great White Hunter. I think if the studio had left him alone and let him do his own movie, it wouldn't have been such a boring film. Why was it so boring if it was such an amazing script and he is such a dynamic director? It just didn't work. It was like three different movies in one. I don't think that was John's fault. I think since then John has told the studios to go and ***k themselves and lay off. He probably should have done it then, but of course the movie might not have ever been released.
How about Oliver Stone on WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006)?Like John, he's crazy and quite wonderful! Very erudite and well-read. He's amazingly knowledgeable about pretty much everything. You can talk to him about sticky rice and he knows everything about it!
And Tony Scott on THE FAN (1996)?
I love him so much. I wish I could work with him forever. He was so much fun, so irreverent and truly funny in that droll English way! He was kind of taking the piss out of everybody all the time! It was a ball working with him and the most fun set I have ever been on in my life. Everybody was having a good time.
What was it like to work with Robert De Niro on that film?
He was wonderful. He's very serious and reserved and very much into his work but he has a keen sense of humour. He's pretty funny, in a sly and offbeat kind of way, which you wouldn't realise until you've spent a little bit of time with him. I mean, he's Bobby De Niro, a legend, and you're slack-jawed anyway! He'll say something and wait, and then you suddenly get it.
When I was auditioning for the movie I read with De Niro. I was so ****ing nervous that I forgot my lines over and over again. I am professional to a fault. I know my work before I get onto the set. Not just the day's work, but everything. I'm immersed. I know it backwards and forwards. And it all went out of my head. It was the first time I had ever been struck dumb like that. I was so embarassed. In the movie, I am supposed to get angry with him because he left my kid at a baseball stadium, which being a mother, was easy for me to get angry about. But my lines were gone. And Bobby said to me "Well, what do you want me to do? Stick the dialogue on my forehead?" I got so mad at him, that he spoke to me like that, that I went over and hit him! I whaled on his ass! All my dialogue came back and it was he who got it out of me. It was fantastic. They called me that day and told me I had the role. Movie stars are very much aware they are movie stars. They're not blind to the fact. And so very often they will go out of their way to make an actor comfortable. Which is essentially what Bob did. What happened between us broke that kind of grasp that his celebrity had on me. With any good actor, eventually a movie star is just another actor. And so was he. He basically helped me very much to get that role. So thank you Bobby!
How was working with Woody Allen on CELEBRITY (1998)?
He's the kind of director who wants to hire actors who know their craft. He is like "You have to speak now, so you sit over there and after he finishes talking, you speak..." When you'd finish your scene he'd say "Excellent. What did you think?" "OK. Good." And that was that. I'm not kidding, that's what he did. He would stand there and roll a quarter in between his fingers, very adeptly I might add. That's a nice way to work, but not if you're a young actor starting off! Not that he really ever uses young actors. It was interesting working with him because he let you do what you wanted to do. Which is wonderful in a way.
You appeared in the John Belushi biopic WIRED (1989). Were you friends with the real Belushi?
I wouldn't say I was close friends with him, but I knew him and hung out with him a few times at the Blues Bar. There was talk around Hollywood that anybody who was going to appear in the film was going to be blacklisted. I didn't pay any attention to it and I don't think it had any effect on my career. I just needed the work! It was an interesting thing to do. It was flawed. It certainly could have been done in a much tidier way. I thought Michael Chiklis gave an amazing performance. The movie itself was mediocre, which was unfortunate.
How do you feel about the availability of good roles for women now compared to different decades?
My generation has aged and different roles are coming our way. There's not a lot of them and not as many as for men. People have a problem with that. I have never really experienced any problems, and personally, I remove myself from it once in a while anyway and I'm taking a little vacation from my craft at the moment too. I think immersing yourself in the life and devoting all your waking hours to the industry is for me like living the tortures of the damned. Living here in North Carolina was an absolute decision to get away from the Hollywood life. I have no reason to be there. I have a house that needs fixing up, my family, and I am pursuing other endeavours like fund-raising, jewellery and pottery, things I didn't think I had time for and yet amazingly I do! In order to keep my career back on track, I am going to have to go back to L.A. for a little while in January and see what I can dig up, and if my lock in that area holds!
I spoke to Patti by telephone on 18th July 2012. I would like to thank her for her time and for her candour.
Patti's official website.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and other sites, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased.
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