Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
In the mid-’90s, British actor Julia Ormond become a cinematic It Girl, frequently cast in movies where at least two men were vying for her love (First Knight), sometimes within the same family (Legends Of The Fall, Sabrina). But Ormond’s career took an unusual turn after her heyday; after playing the title role in 1997’s Smilla’s Sense Of Snow, she veered into more colorful supporting roles. She also became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and has founded her own nonprofit to combat human trafficking.
Ormond continued to work steadily since her breakout, even if her roles were no longer the title ones. She won an Emmy for playing Temple Grandin’s mother in the TV movie Temple Grandin, became the therapist to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, gave life to Vivien Leigh in My Week With Marilyn, and portrayed the French sophisticate Marie Calvert, the woman who ultimately won Roger Sterling’s heart, in Mad Men. Her latest film, Reunion, has just been released on VOD. It’s a horror movie in which Ormond plays a mother who welcomes her pregnant daughter (Emma Draper) to their family’s ancestral home, but pent-up resentments and disturbing memories from the past soon turn the tenuous reunion from domestic to terrifying.
Ormond is currently in Virginia shooting The Walking Dead: World Beyond, playing a character that’s about as far from the glamor of her early ingenue roles as you can get. Nevertheless, the actor has never been happier in her career. Ormond has become the unofficial mascot of this year’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, as TV editor Danette Chavez recently wrote about how Susannah’s love (and lust) for Tristan is the most legendary part of Legends Of The Fall. Ormond laughed when she heard that, before telling us her favorite parts of being on that set (it was the horse wrangling) and others for this edition of Random Roles.
The A.V Club: That was your first big American production, right?
Julia Ormond: Legends was really my first American film. And it was just an extraordinary first movie to come into an industry on. And it was just a crazily jammy job. I left my East End flat in London and went to this absolutely extraordinary Native American reservation. And there were horses in the barn, and it was just idyllic.
What I remember most about Legends, there was the most extraordinary camaraderie between the actors. And I think Brad [Pitt], from a leadership perspective, just really helped in terms of what you gave off camera and where to stand. It was extraordinary, not just from Brad, but from Ed [Zwick, director], and I thought at the end of the day, [he did] just the most extraordinary edit on it.
I think when you’re making a movie, it all feels extended. You work on something for months and months and months. And then at the end of the day, it’s two hours long. So if you can imagine how much crying there is in a two-hour movie, it’s so scary at the time. As actors, I remember one night we were sitting around the fireplace negotiating who was going to tear up in the next scene. And it was sort of like, “No, I cried on Friday and setting the scene and then I’m tearing up today. I’m not crying in the next scene. No, you have to cry. I’m not crying. I can’t cry anymore.”
We were just like, “How is this going to work?” There’s hardly any happy moments, and then everybody cries till the end of the movie. But there’s something when you see it cut together. It was this very deliberate scripting of a bizarre mix of Greek tragedy meets soap meets cowboy film. But for some reason, it works as a movie.
And [cinematographer] John Toll was just extraordinary. He’s a total class act. He goes and spends months just looking at the light. And that’s why you have the sense that all of these characters are in the hands of God in terms of their life, their choices. But just the land is extraordinary.
AVC: How long were you out there?
JO: I think we were out there for about three months. And for me, it was more than heaven. I guess I’m quite a tomboy. There would be so many times when I would have a break and I fell in with the horse wranglers. And so hair and makeup would go, “Oh, please be careful,” and “Just make sure you’re staying out of the shot.” So they’d set me up with a walkie-talkie to go ride.
There’s one scene in Legends where Tristan’s coming back from the war and he drives the horses over the hill and they drive them into the corral. And I really remember that day, because beyond the sight line of the camera on the set about the start of it under the hill, all the wranglers and I joined them. And we got to corral the horses and whip them up and get them galloping. And then we had to gallop like hell out of the shot. It was just so fun.
AVC: So you were like an unofficial horse wrangler.
JO: I think I probably did earn my unofficial wrangling stripe. Although I never managed to do that neat trick—and I practiced, practiced, practiced—where you hold onto the pommel of the saddle, and you swing yourself up into it. Not for the want of trying. But the roping stuff was really fun. We had a lot of fun.
AVC: That movie became one of those big ’90s blockbusters. Was that overwhelming?
JO: Yeah, it was. It did kind of blow me away. And I think there was this odd thing that happened to me career-wise. That era of films, I think it was six films that came out in one year, which is actually not ideal. It was not so much Legends coming out—it was everything coming out at once. And I was filming at the time, and I think that side of it became quite daunting.
I was in New York, for publicity or something. But the English are very, very different. I can remember encountering American culture as an English person. Coming from a family that I think I can count on both hands the number of times that my parents had told me they loved me before the age of 21 kind of thing, or even one hand, actually. It’s not that we don’t love. It’s that we don’t say it in the same way.
So encountering Americans, I remember I was in a pharmacy in New York, in Manhattan, the front of the line, and the girl looked me and went [Adopts American accent.], “Oh, my god, I love you.” I thought she was deranged. I think I said, “Excuse me?” “I love you. What’s the name of that movie you’re in?” “What?” I was so confused by it. I think I took it all too literally.
So there were a few years where it felt overwhelming, not because it ever really happened to me. I mean, there would be some recognition. But I was working with people who literally couldn’t walk down the street without people saying their name as they walked through them. And it was that that scared me.
I remember one of those moments with Richard [Gere], where I insisted that we go out and see Blue Man [Group]. He said, “I can’t really do that.” And I said, “Yeah, you can. I shall protect you with karate or whatever.” And it was fine, and then I remember we came outside of the theater at the end, and it very, very quickly drew a crowd. And he was kind of bundled into a cab and left. Just the experience of being that level of A-list, it really made me rethink the value of anonymity and the power of being anonymous in a city. And being able to feel like you’re with people you’re walking through New York with and being able to do that, or Paris or London or wherever. And for people who are at that level, they kind of can’t do it without the disguise. And then somehow the disguise makes people look at you even more.
AVC: Now people look back at the Sabrina remake and really like it. But at the time it seemed like, “How dare you take on Audrey Hepburn’s role?” Is that accurate? What did you think when you got offered the role?
JO: Yes. And it’s an interesting question because I know that my agent at the time said, “I would think very carefully about doing this because the original script is much loved by Americans.” And at the time I had been doing all of this tragedy, tragedy, tragedy, and drama. I quite often killed myself. It was very unusual that I actually survived a film as the character. And I desperately wanted to expand into different genres. I was a huge Harrison Ford fan, and Sydney Pollack, and it was kind of like, “Are you kidding?”
And I do remember watching the original and just feeling that it was right for a remake. The original was the story of somebody becoming the swan. And to me it was that we were able to do it in such a way that they probably couldn’t do it at the time when Hepburn did it. But we really leaned into the ugly duckling bit, and the awkwardness and the geekiness. And so one was about elegance, and one was about overcoming your inner awkwardness. And I really wanted to do a romantic comedy.
But as soon as I landed in New York or as soon as it became public, it felt like everyone I spoke to said, “Oh, you’re doing Sabrina? That’s my favorite movie.” I went, “Aww, no.” It felt as if people had a huge emotional attachment to it.
I guess this is one of the things that you get to do when you’re older as an actor. At the age of 56, the really nice thing I have is the number of people who say, “I love that movie. I watch that with my daughter.” I love, love, love that. Somebody who I’m working with said that their grandmother watches it on a regular basis.
You know, Sidney was such a craftsman. And again, we had a really good time, and it was a lot of fun. And I think it’s also one of the best movies that I’ve been in.
AVC: It’s such a charming movie. If you’re not comparing it to anything, it stands on its own.
JO: And I think also as an English actor, when you are trained in the theater and you come from a theater background, we are constantly re-envisioning the classics. That’s what we do. So it didn’t strike me as such a blunder. But I could see why before, people would say, “Why remake that?”
AVC: Speaking of re-envisioning the classics, when did you get offered the role of Guinevere? Or did you audition?
JO: It was so strange because I can’t remember at what point I met [director] Jerry Zucker, but I think he did a round of casting and he wanted to cast me way before Legends. That’s what I remember. And I don’t know why. I think quite often with directors, though, for whatever reason, they have a vision in their head. I don’t know what it was.
When the offer came through, I questioned at the time the romantic level of it. And it was definitely in a period in time where everybody was confronting, “How do you deal with HIV-AIDS and this explosion of HIV across the world? How do you deal with that in storytelling and sex on screen and all the rest of it?” And that is something in Jerry’s story that he wanted the full-on power of the betrayal to just be over a kiss. More than that, the kiss was enough to turn Arthur.
But again, we had so much fun. Again, horses, loads of horses. I’m a total sucker for a movie with a horse in it. We ended up going to Wales. It was quite a profound movie for me in terms of reconnecting me, ironically, to my family heritage in Wales. We ended up filming it not far from where my grandfather is buried and where my family on my dad’s side have been for hundreds of years and documented being there for hundreds of years.
In fact, the valley that Jerry Zucker had chosen… When I took my mom, my mom was a huge Sean Connery fan. I said, “Come on up to Wales. It’ll be like we’ll be on vacation together in Wales instead of sprawling all over London.” And it started to rain or whatever. So I sent my mom back down. It was getting a bit much. I sent my mom back to the trailer. So she was waiting and waiting in the trailer. Then I said to Sean, “Come and meet my mom. My mom adores you. She’d love to talk to you.” And he said [Adopts spot-on Sean Connery voice.], “Of course, I’ll come and meet your mother.” And then my mum couldn’t open the door! [Laughs.] And Sean and I are out in the rain. So there was a lot of instant flirting through the door between Sean and my mom. He was so gracious. He was so kind. But my mom said, on seeing the valley that Jerry had searched all over Europe to find, “Oh, we used to come there on holiday. The paintings that your grandparents have is like the visual of this valley. This is where your grandparents used to come and paint, and the paintings are up all over the house. And this is where we used to go on hikes and walks, and this is where we would play when we were kids.”
AVC: After a string of romantic movies, you did Smilla’s Sense Of Snow. Did you have the desire to do something different, like a thriller, after all that?
JO: I don’t know that careers are that easy to guide and shape. Stuff kind of comes to you, and you say yes or no. My career has always been, “Do I like the script? Do I think it would be good? Do I think I could do bring something to it?” And what I was really conscious of was that I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. I didn’t want to get typecast. I wanted to be able to work as a character actor.
And I loved the book. I really wanted to be doing, not just American movies, but really great quality European movies and international film. To me, there was a particular kind of caliber of movie. I guess at the time it was a lot of Merchant Ivory stuff, which didn’t interest me as much. There’s a fear of really great international moviemaking that I think I saw as something that was a sweet spot for me in terms of interesting work, working with interesting people.
And Smilla, for me, I identified with the character. I love working with kids. I love films that have children in them, although I think I’ve learned since [that] the children really need protecting in this industry. So I’m a bit conflicted on that front, about kids working, but obviously I’ve done many a movie with children. But also The Best Intentions was a really beautiful [Smilla director] Bille August film based on the autobiography of Ingmar Bergman. So The Best Intentions was something that I had really, really loved.
I also loved the fact that it was this unique environment of going to Greenland—that was so exciting. And then I completely panicked that I was just going to be freezing and not able to move. I’ve never been so cold in my life when I did Smilla, because we were working in something like 7 below. But it was absolutely stunning, and now with everything that is going on in the world, I’m really glad that I saw Greenland when it still was like it was.
AVC: You made that movie right before you became a Goodwill Ambassador working against children trafficking. Did Smilla inspire you to do that?
JO: I think there are various connections around work practices that have led me to it. It might have been for the premiere of Smilla, actually, that I went to Sarajevo and we raised money for the school for the blind. It was kind of on the Serbian frontline, and they’d mined the school when they left. It was just staggering.
So I think at that point I started to feel that whatever spotlight that was shone on me, that I did what I could to reflect that light back onto something that needed attention. And then that grew into a real concern—passion, even—and commitment around human rights. And for me, trafficking and slavery, whether I was working on conflict resolution or I was the founding chair of an organization called FilmAid International. And I got a bit confused at a certain point, and I diverted most of my time to FilmAid International and getting it off the ground as an organization with Caroline Baron, who had this fantastic idea to take a film to refugee camps to show to refugees, because a huge issue for people is lack of access to information, but also boredom and entertainment. And now FilmAid has worked for many international networks and many, many different countries, and now they get movies to about 400,000 people a year, I think. They’re very, very proud of that.
I had to reinvent at a certain point and get back in touch with what made me feel good about our industry and storytelling. And then that evolved as trafficking always reared its head, whether you were trying to reunite refugees and the technology couldn’t be sophisticated because there was no way to protect it from being hacked. And it just seemed to always surface as this undermining issue. You know, you can’t tackle HIV-AIDS without tackling sex trafficking. You can’t tackle the environment without getting to forced labor and deforestation. You can’t preserve the world’s fish and ocean ecosystems if you don’t take on slavery and fishing. It kept rearing its head, whatever issue it was.
So that shift has gone into founding my nonprofit, the Alliance To Stop Slavery And End Trafficking. And we came up with a legislative approach to it. We became the source of what’s called the Transparency In Supply Chains law. It started in California. Darrell Steinberg is the most amazing author of the bill in Sacramento. And the Modern Slavery Act in the U.K., it’s gone on to Australia. So I’m actually very proud of it.
AVC: You were a mom by that point, right? So you must have brought in a lot of maternal instinct into the role.
JO: It’s so funny that you would ask that. I actually just had a conversation with Eustacia last night; we’ve stayed in touch. So Eustacia—who I played, who’s Temple’s mum—had written her own book, and is quite an extraordinary advocate for autism and Asperger’s and sees all of us as being on the spectrum. So she had written the book, but for legal reasons, I wasn’t allowed to actually reach out and talk with her. Her book was called Thorn In My Pocket, and my way of keeping her with me, having not met her, was to have a thorn in my pocket of my costume. Wardrobe would be like, “We keep finding these things!”
I do think when it comes to awards, firstly, I believe when I did my speech, it was so rushed, and so I forgot to talk about my family and kid. And then they started playing the music or whatever. But then, I don’t know that you’re allowed to do this, but Eustacia had wanted to be an actress and had not pursued it because of having to take care of Temple. So she actually has the Emmy Award. We’ve become really good friends. She was a really spectacular human being in a very solidly written piece. So I just felt like the Emmy was as much for her, if not more, than for my acting.
Mad Men (2012-2015)—“Marie Calvet”
AVC: Your French was impressive and your chemistry with John Slattery was amazing from the beginning.
JO: Oh. My. God. I totally, totally loved him. I think by the time I got to work with him, every single time he opened his mouth to say a line, it was just so funny. It was so well-written. There was a piece of me that was so buoyed up and amazed that here I was playing somebody’s step-grandmother. And it was probably one of the nicest, best, funkiest, spiciest roles I’ve ever had. And I also had somebody who was really great helping me with the dialect and the French.
AVC: Was that a tough set to walk onto? People had already been together on that set for a while and you kind of came in late.
JO: They are all just super gracious. I think if there was a scary element for me, it was about not achieving what [creator] Matt Weiner’s vision was. He’s very, very specific, and often the best showrunners are. And the best shows, from my perspective, one of the things that makes a show really great is that they are super specific about the rule book: “This is our world. These are the rules within our world.” So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t achieve what Matt wanted me to achieve.
I’d also met Jon Hamm, I think socially, beforehand. He was always just super gracious and super sweet. They were all really, really lovely with me. It was actually probably my favorite TV show. So I turned up like a kid walking into Disneyland. I was like the 5-year-old that gets to cuddle Pluto’s legs. It has that kind of magical thing. These people are real!
JO: We’ve been here [in Virginia] for a while. We’re doing preproduction, and I am getting more and more and more excited about it. And I feel like I’ve grown away somewhat from just [physicality] as I’ve aged. I think part of it is some kind of resistance to this thing of “you’ll only get the Oscar or the part if you look a certain way.” And I’m not celebrating or saying I’m proud of shortcomings, but a lot of it is just running around crazily—trying to be a mom, trying to run an NGO and nonprofit to do the anti-trafficking stuff, and have a career.
Just like Marie Calvert was this extraordinary step-grandmother, the roles that I’ve gotten to play when they are liberated from being the love interest, I really relish. And what I remember about the huge studio movies was you could not touch, you couldn’t give yourself bangs, you couldn’t move. People wanting to test this and see it and shape it. Everything was about making you look just gorgeous, which frankly, I certainly didn’t without the lights, makeup, hair, and all the rest of it. It’s so much more fun when nobody really thinks that’s worth spending a lot of time on. [Laughs.]
There’s so much more freedom that I have been given as I’ve gotten older as an actor. And I also think what used to scare me or what I was tense about, I think as a young actor, I got jettisoned into quite big roles in film without ever having the chance to cut my teeth on really understanding what it was like to be on the set.
I still have my anxiety about new projects. And I hate first days. I can never sleep the night before. I still always think I’m going to get fired in the read-through. So I’m quite happy when they don’t do a read-through for a role. I usually go through an anxious period after I’ve been cast of seriously believing that everybody regrets it and wishes they had not cast me. I quite often check in with the director. “Hey, listen, if you change your mind…”
So it’s a lot of anxiety stuff, but I now recognize this as just part of my process. And some of it is good anxiety. That is the sort of foreshadowing of the amount of change that your being is about to go through, whether it’s being uprooted from your home and your normal group of people, access to friends and all the rest of it, that you’re now going to submerge into [this] world.
Now I don’t put too much credence on it, or let the anxiety get a hand. I just kind of let it go. I don’t think I had much flexibility as a younger actor. I think it was quite hard for me to change my ideas. And now I saw this as the thing that happens. If you watch your career unfold over time and you go through the process of working and then the process of seeing the end result, what you actually get to see is how many times you were wrong. And I was just wrong.
AVC: What were you wrong about?
JO: I was wrong in my interpretation. I was wrong in what I was fighting for. And somebody else was saying, like, “Thank you for the idea, but we’re going to do it this way.” I’m thinking, “Oh, no, no, no,” like not being able to get my head around it. When you see how many times you were wrong, it helps. It helps me let it go more.
The Barber Of Siberia (1998)—“Dzheyn”
AVC: To that end, is there a movie from your career that you really love, that you feel like never really got the attention that it deserved
JO: There’s a film that I did a long time ago after Smilla’s Sense Of Snow called The Barber Of Siberia. That was a Nikita Mikhalkov movie that I spent a great deal of time in Russia and Prague making. And it never got distribution in the U.S., I don’t think. Opened Cannes. But I got to work with a totally Russian crew, and that was great. And then there’s a little film that I did that’s a documentary recently called Ghost Fleet, which I’m also proud of.
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)—“Caroline”
AVC: You’ve said that you got to see the whole movie to do your part in Benjamin Button because David Fincher had already filmed the other parts.
JO: [Laughs.] That was just extraordinary because I’m not particularly fond of seeing myself on camera. So it was really a neat experience. He set it up in a studio for me and I got to watch the whole movie. He wanted me to be able to know, “This is the energy that you’re coming off of. This is what precedes it, and this is what comes after it.”
But I loved working with him, and [screenwriter] Eric [Roth] and Cate [Blanchett] was just extraordinary. That’s a performance that I don’t think ever got the credit that it should have. I think a lot of people thought that it was another actress who played the elderly character because Cate was so convincing. Like a lot of people said to me, “So, who is the actress who plays the Cate Blanchett character in your part?” And I said, “That was Cate!”
There was one point where she had all of her makeup on and her costume on, although she shoved a robe over the top, and she’d heard that Spielberg was working in one of the hangars nearby, so she hobbled over at lunch break to go see him. And apparently the ADs and crew tried to stop her because they thought it was a Make-A-Wish invasion or something. They totally didn’t realize it was Cate.
But she would do this really funny thing in the middle of the shooting. It was quite hot. So we’d shoot a take or whatever, and we’d be fixing something or setting something up, and she’d kick off the blanket. She was supposed to be 80 or 90 or whatever it was. And then there were these perfect dancer’s legs.