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.
The actor: Since making her film debut in 1969, Jane Seymour has experienced a number of career renaissances and repeatedly managed to reinvent herself as an actor, something that happens all too infrequently in Hollywood. While you can attribute part of her success to her ability to bounce between high drama and lowbrow comedy seemingly without blinking an eye, it’s just as likely because she doesn’t like to lose. With a filmography that includes spies (Live And Let Die), Cylons (Battlestar Galactica), century-spanning romance (Somewhere In Time), frat-boy comedy (Wedding Crashers), and life in a frontier town (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), Seymour keeps audiences guessing as to where she’s going to turn up next. Currently, however, Seymour can be seen trying to make Adam Sandler swoon in his latest film, Sandy Wexler, which is now on Netflix.
Jane Seymour: I was offered this project, and I found the script very funny. I particularly loved the scenes I had with Adam. I decided to suggest that I play it as a blond, which they loved. They hadn’t even thought about that. So I think when people see the movie, they don’t necessarily recognize me at first, because I’m very American and I have short blond hair. [Laughs.] And I’m wearing a babydoll marabou 1990s seductive outfit.
The A.V. Club: Had you been a Sandler fan in the past?
JS: Yes, I had been. Everyone always told me that working with him was one of the great joys that anyone could ever have, and I think the testament to that is that pretty much every comedian that’s ever been is in this movie. [Laughs.] Everyone’s happy to show up and do very little or do whatever they do or play themselves. He’s just a great guy. You know, he’s a family man. His kids are in it, his wife’s in it, his nephew’s in it… everybody’s in it! And the guy who plays my husband in the movie is the guy it’s loosely based on: Sandy Wernick, who’s been Adam’s manager for the last 30-something years.
AVC: How do you feel about getting pitched “cougar” roles like this?
JS: You know what? It’s nice to know that I can still play that! [Laughs.] I love the comedy. I think it’s so much fun. I had the best time doing Wedding Crashers, and after that everyone went, “Wow, she’s funny!” And since then, I’ve done a ton of comedy. But every time I go out there, I try to do something different comedically, and I always play very different characters, and people go, “Whoa, wait a minute, we hadn’t thought of that!” So it’s great—I’m being offered a lot of comedy!
AVC: It would seem that your first on-camera role was an uncredited one: playing a chorus girl in Oh! What A Lovely War.
JS: Right! That was my first film. I was in a sequence with Maggie Smith. Richard Attenborough was the director, it was his first time ever directing, and I was in the first day’s work. We’d been rehearsing for awhile. In fact, I remember that when I had to go to one of the rehearsals [for the film], I missed the final rehearsal of my school play or performance or something, and they were going to fire me from my school play. And my father, who was a very eminent surgeon, actually gave up his patients to drive me from Richard Attenborough’s rehearsal studio to the school to make sure that I would be in the school performance that they’d all bought tickets for! [Laughs.]
But, yes, I had one line in the film: Maggie Smith said, “Is there a man digging your garden when he should be digging trenches?” and I run up and I say, [In a high-pitched voice.], “He should be digging trenches!” I had a very squeaky voice. But I was discovered on that film! I was the third chorus girl from the left, and the top agent in England—one of the top agents in the world—said, “That girl third from the left is going to be a star!” And he signed me up.
JS: And then after that, without realizing who he was, I met the son of the director, Michael Attenborough, and we realized we already knew each other. So we started dating, and I ended up dating him. So I became an Attenborough. A home run. [Laughs.]
JS: Young Winston, right. There was talk of me being in Gandhi at one point, but I think that would’ve been stretching it to have me play someone from India. [Laughs.] But that was when I was younger. He thought he was going to make it right away, but it took him 12 years to get that made. But I had an amazing experience. He was very much my mentor, Dickie Attenborough. He taught me enormous amounts about the business.
AVC: You obviously started acting at a young age, but what inspired you to pursue that path in life? Did it just strike you one day?
JS: No, I wanted to be a ballerina. Actually, when I was very young and first went to school, I was selected and asked to stand to one side because I had flat feet and a speech impediment. I thought it was because I was special, but it actually meant that I had problems! So I had to come in early and learn to walk differently, and my mother enrolled me in ballet to get rid of the flat feet, and the speech impediment was Rs. I couldn’t say my Rs completely. Of course, having done that, I now specialize in playing characters from countries that do nothing but roll their R’s, like America. [Laughs.]
And I did end up dancing with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden. It’s kind of been my mantra in life that, when you have a challenge in life, invariably there’s another opportunity somewhere that you’re not quite aware of. For me, I loved acting, and I went to a ballet school that made you do everything: singing, dancing, designing, makeup, choreography, tap, modern dance, character dance—you name it. So that’s why I was very well equipped when I injured myself when I was about 16 or 17 and couldn’t dance anymore. I became an actress. One who was playing dancers at first!
JS: That was just the most amazing experience I ever had working on a movie. I had the most wonderful time with Christopher Reeve, who became my lifelong friend. It was just so beautiful. Of course, no cars were allowed on the island except for the ones that were in the film that were brought there on a horse and buggy and just deposited. [Laughs.] But we were all issued bicycles, and Chris and I used to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning and get on our bikes and skive off and hide the bikes under a tree, jump in his little airplane, and fly around the place. Which, of course, was highly illegal. We weren’t supposed to be doing that! But we loved working together, and we loved that little movie. At first, it was so panned by the critics that Chris thought, “Oh, my gosh, my career is over after this,” and he got scared. Of course, then the public had a chance to find it, and now it’s one of the most loved romances ever.
AVC: Do you recall a particular point when you realized that this little film had become a big deal?
JS: Yes, I’ll tell you what happened. A friend of mine lived in Hong Kong, and I was asked to come out to Hong Kong to meet the man who owned all the media and all the cinemas. And apparently Somewhere In Time had played for over a year to packed houses in all of his cinemas. He couldn’t replace it with anything! Eventually he took it off, and there was an outcry, and six months later he had to put it back on. Because people would watch it 15 or 20 times! But I met him—his name was Sir Run Run Shaw—and he said… Well, of course, he met me when I was eight months pregnant, but he said, “Why you? Why this film?” And I said, “I don’t know!” But it literally doesn’t matter where I go, any piano bar anywhere in the world, they’re playing the theme from Somewhere In Time. And I was responsible for that, too!
My very close friend was John Barry, the composer, and they couldn’t possibly afford him. They couldn’t even afford the phone call to ask him! But I told him about the movie, and he read the script, and he saw it, and he just said, “Okay, I’ll do this for no money up front, just the back end.” And it became one of the biggest financial successes he ever had. So that was fantastic.
Murphy Brown (1995 & 1997)/The Nanny (1995)/Diagnosis Murder (1997)/Dharma & Greg (1998)—herself
Franklin & Bash (2012-2014)—“Colleen Bash”
Jane The Virgin (2015-2016)—“Amanda Elaine”
AVC: You played yourself on a number of different series in the ’90s. Was that just a recurring thing, where people would call you up and ask to play the token celebrity in an episode?
JS: Yes, but usually they had me play Dr. Quinn rather than Jane Seymour… or, rather, Jane Seymour as Dr. Quinn. But Dharma & Greg, that was very funny, because Dharma never lied, but she’d lied and said that she’d had lunch with Jane Seymour. So she had to find a way to have lunch with me. And there I was, in all my Dr. Quinn gear. And for the set decorating, they wanted it to look like my dressing room, and they realized that I was an artist, so they hung all of my actual art—because I paint for a living as well—in the dressing room. And then they had me do something where I was getting high on Pixy Stix, but I didn’t know what a Pixy Stick was. But it was very funny, I have to admit. I love that show.
And I did a couple of episodes of Murphy Brown, and I’ve done a whole bunch of shows. More recently, I’ve been doing shows like Franklin & Bash and Jane The Virgin. Whenever they need a crazy person, they call me up! [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned Wedding Crashers earlier. Was that also a case where they just came to you and said, “We see you in this role”?
JS: No! Everybody in my age group tried out for that, some of the biggest names you’ve ever heard, and everybody had to test for it. And I’m not good at auditioning at all. I hate it! But I came in and did what I did, and the director calls me at home that night and says, “If you come in tomorrow, do you think you can up the sexuality?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Yes, so long as you don’t have another woman my age with a very small camera pointing at me. That’s hard to play towards. But if it’s a scene with a man…” And the next day, they called my bluff: They had this absolutely gorgeous, handsome actor there, and I was like, “Uh…” I thought, “This has to be illegal to even be acting with this guy!” But we did it, and it was hilarious. And I did that famous kitty cat, the little snarl thing. It was fun!
JS: As I said earlier, after Wedding Crashers, I got offered so much comedy, it was like a whole new career. In fact, that’s when I got my own series, Modern Men. That was three-camera, and that was fun as well.
JS: Oh, yes, yes. Michael Sarrazin and James Mason. James Mason used to read the London Times out loud to his wife in the makeup trailer. With a very plummy voice. [Laughs.] And Michael, I didn’t see him very often, because he was playing The Creature, and I think he was always spending about eight hours in makeup, having his horrendous makeup done. Leonard Whiting played Frankenstein, and it was not that long after he’d played Romeo in Romeo And Juliet. He was lovely. And I got to dance in it, so I was very happy.
JS: That’s very interesting, because I did that and—well, first of all, I had no idea, really, about anything to do with football or cheerleaders and certainly not Dallas. I went there and realized very quickly when I went out in the evening that I would not be allowed into restaurants where the actual cheerleaders I was with would be treated like royalty. I went, “Okay, so being an actress means nothing out here. You’ve got to be a cheerleader!” And then, having done classical ballet, I thought, “Ah, it’s easy to do cheerleading.” Nope, not too much. [Laughs.] It was pretty hard. It was hard work! And then there were the skimpy outfits. Somebody pointed out to me that I was doing a T&A show. I said, “What’s that?” They said, “Tits and ass!” I said [Groaning.], “Oh, no, I’m not doing that!” So I tried to cover myself up, to no avail. And I wasn’t really sure, and I was somewhat embarrassed by the whole experience.
And then it came out, and it was the highest rated piece of television that week, the highest rated piece of television that season, and it had a 52 rating! That wouldn’t even exist in this world! More than half of everybody watching television was watching it. But I remember that day because the network executive called and said, “I’ve been instructed to take you out for a champagne brunch to celebrate.” And I said, “Well, if this is what we’re celebrating, this could be a day of mourning!” [Laughs.] But then I got over myself. Frankly, I’d always wanted to play Lady Macbeth or something, to go and do some serious classic stuff, and I found myself doing some T&A. But I watched it the other day, and it’s actually a cute little show. I can see why it was successful. It’s all those wonderful Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders!
I only have one regret: At the end of shooting, they did invite me to join the squad for one time—which would’ve been crazy—but I said no. And now, when you’re older, you look back at that and you say, “Ah, I should have done that.” Just to tell the grandchildren, you know? [Laughs.]
JS: Oh, well, Live And Let Die was huge. What happened there was, I was doing a series in England called The Onedin Line, playing a virginal woman in the 1870s who owned a shipping line. The first episode had just come out, and this was just about one of the first big things I’d done, and my agents got a call from Cubby Broccoli saying they wanted to meet me for the Bond film. My agent said, “Well, she’s not available, she’s doing a series.” And then the next episode came out, and Harry Saltzman called. And my agent didn’t realize that Harry and Cubby weren’t talking to each other, so he said, “Look, you can meet her if you want, but she’s not available.” And he said to me, “You might as well meet them. They make other movies.” Which, of course, they never did, but… [Laughs.]
I went in and I met them, and I’d always been told that with my hair off of my face, I looked completely different from when I had my hair down. My hair in those days, I could sit on it, it was so long and straight. So I bought myself a furry hat, tucked my hair in the hat, wore a jacket that had a furry collar. It cost me all the money I had! And when I came in to see Harry, he said, “Take off your coat,“ which I did. And he said, “Take off your hat,” and my hair came tumbling down. And that was it: He offered me the role on the spot!
He marched me over to the street where Cubby’s office was and said, “Look, I’ve found our Solitaire!” And Cubby and he proceeded to have a huge argument about who spotted me first. And, of course, Cubby called my agent first, so I supposed he was right. But I was asked to leave and go sit with the secretaries, and they had a big old fight about it. I kept holding my hand up, like in school, and saying, “Excuse me, but… I was on television, so you could’ve both seen me at exactly the same time!” [Laughs.]
Anyway, I was so in shock, and my agent said, “Come over immediately,” so I climbed into my little Volkswagen Beetle, and I backed it into Harry Saltzman’s Rolls-Royce. That was not good. But I drove into SoHo and parked, and my agent sat me down. I was 20 years old. He said, “You’d better have this.” He gave me a gin and tonic. And he proceeded to tell me that he was going to try and persuade the BBC to let me out and alter my work schedule so I could do both projects… which was, in fact, what happened.
JS: That was fun! That was major comedy there. And very sexy. I didn’t think anybody ever saw it! But, yes, gosh, everybody was in that one. It was a great role, very funny. My biggest memory of that was when we had a day off, and I think Don King had invited me and pretty much everybody else to meet Michael Jackson and the Jacksons. I was in the hotel after the performance, which was extraordinary, and they broke up right there! [Laughs.] That’s when he broke off from his brothers!
But Don King was there, and I remember Reverend Al Sharpton was in the bus with us, and Danny DeVito, Eddie Albert… I mean, can you imagine? And Joe Jackson as well. So it was very interesting. And I did get to meet Michael Jackson, and he was the sweetest man ever. I don’t even remember them taking me into the room where he was. It was like all of a sudden he appeared, like a wood nymph. But he was tiny, and you just felt that if you blew on him he’d fall over and disappear. And he had this very high voice, and he was so sweet, and he’d seen everything I’d ever done! I was totally in awe of the moment. And I was very worried for him to go on stage. I thought, “Oh, he’s far too fragile to do this.” And then, of course, he goes on and he rocks it. So that’s what I remember about Head Office.
JS: Oh, Battlestar Galactica, that’s a good story, too! When I came to this country, I couldn’t get a work permit. The first show that I showed up and tried out for, I got the role, but I couldn’t get a work permit. So I was about to quit and go back to London, but Glen Larson—who at that time was producing a number of shows, including McCloud—offered me the role of an Israeli tank commander.
So I played that, and then he said he was doing this thing called Battlestar Galactica and he wanted me to play Serina. I wouldn’t be in the series, but I’d be a guest star, and I’d die of galactic cancer. And I thought, “Wow, this is really great!” So I did it, with Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Laurette Spang, and everybody, and we had an amazing time. I think we took 10 weeks to shoot the pilot. I remember one scene we reshot three times. It had something to do with a special effect or a creature of some sort.
Anyway, I died, and it was quite good acting, I thought. And the next thing I know, they’ve tested this thing, and all of a sudden Lorne Greene is calling me and begging me to do the series, and Glen Larson is begging me to do the series. And I went, “But I’m dead!” And Glen said, “Welllllll, not exactly.” It turns out that they went and reshot some sequences that I wasn’t in, edited around me looking sick or dying, or talking about dying, or actually dying, and… I was still very much alive! Not doing a lot, mind you. Just kind of being there. And then they offered me silly money to come back and do at least two episodes. They wanted me to do the whole series, which I said no to. I don’t know why. I think I just didn’t want to do a series at the time. But I married Richard Hatch, I flew the battle ship… Anything and everything I would’ve done over a year or two, I got to do over two episodes.
The funniest thing was that they had a poster of Battlestar Galactica, and in those days they’d take photographs and then an artist would paint you very realistically. What had happened was that we were shooting the sequence where the end of the world happened, and we were shooting in the middle of the night at, like, 3 in the morning outside Universal [Studios] on the street. But they couldn’t use a young boy to play Boxey at that hour, so they had a small person replace [Noah Hathaway]. A small person in his mid-50s who I was holding to my breast and protecting from the demise of the planet. And he didn’t want to leave. [Laughs.] I thought it was funny, but then we saw the poster… and the artist drew the little person, not the young boy!
JS: That was interesting, too, because I was playing a Persian princess. In those days in England, I was always playing very exotic parts, and they said I didn’t look British, even though I was British. But I had high cheekbones and slightly olive skin—and if I was in the sun, quite dark skin—and brown hair. Well, I played this role with John Wayne’s son, Patrick Wayne, and Taryn Power, who was Tyrone Power’s daughter. When I originally signed on to do it, I had the lead. By the time they signed Tyrone Power’s daughter, they’d taken half of my role and given it to her! So it was very strange. The whole campaign was to see if they could sell Taryn Power and Patrick Wayne.
But I was in there, and they had some other wonderful actors. But the thing about Sinbad is that if you speak to anyone on the cutting edge of special effects in the world today, every one of them says that their favorite film is Sinbad, because that’s why they got into special effects. Because of Dynamation, which was this painstaking secret way that Ray Harryhausen had of creating these monsters.
JS: Yes, he was. But, you know, we never saw the monsters. I don’t even know if we saw a picture of the monsters. All we ever saw was a big stick with a cross on it, and they’d say, “Okay, that’s to take the place of this monster.” And that was it. On a green screen in Malta, in 110 degrees, wearing fur. [Laughs.] Untreated fur, I might add!
JS: Oh, well, that was fun, too, because Chevy Chase was in his prime, and working with Omar Sharif—that was really interesting. I mean, I’m playing with a talking dog. [Laughs.] Benji was very brilliantly controlled by an animal trainer, and he was an extraordinary dog.
The only problem was that you’re not allowed to take animals into England because of quarantine. So they had a lookalike contest for Benji in England, and needless to say, they found a dog that looked like Benji but certainly had not been trained in his entire life. So they had to tie the dog down, and… this dog did not want to be Benji. No one had actually consulted it. [Laughs.] But I did learn a lot about animal wrangling. When you do all your scenes with the dog, you have to carry the treats and you have to know when to give them, and you have to learn certain signals. It was a fun show.
I worked with Omar Sharif a few other times as well. His favorite thing was gambling, especially with the horses, so I used to go with him and watch him gamble. He was a big gambler. I am not a gambler. I do not like to lose. [Laughs.]
Jack The Ripper (1988)—“Emma”
JS: That was fun. I played it as a redhead, it was a great role, and of course I got to work with the great Michael Caine. I had been warned that Michael is tough on actors and actresses unless they know their lines and are very professional, which mostly I was, but they didn’t tell me that he literally liked to do one take and then go and have lunch with his wife. [Laughs.] Which is basically what happened! So you’d show up, and unless the [microphone] landed on you or the camera bumped onto you or he messed up, which he never did, that was it. It was one take, and then you’re on to the next. So that was interesting. And when we first got the script, they kind of implicated the Masons as being involved, and by the time we finished the movie, there was pretty much no mention of the Masons.
The Absolute Truth (1997)—“Alison Reid”
AVC: Is there any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JS: Oh, gosh. Well, there’s a great one that got well hidden called The Absolute Truth, which was all about a president who had a problem with women and a producer of a 60 Minutes-like show who’d been told this story by someone who’d been sexually harassed and whose life was in ruins because of it. And she was investigating this whole thing, and it basically turned out to show you how the media used politics and the politics used the media.
Bruce Greenwood was in it, I was in it, and it was scheduled to go on CBS and I was doing all the press… and then all of a sudden, literally the day before, I got the call that they’d moved the airdate and they weren’t going to put it on then, because it was only 10 days before the election, and it was apparently too close to the truth. So they told me it would be shown, and it was, but it was buried. And where was it buried? Opposite Ellen’s coming-out episode. Nobody saw it. I mean nobody!
But it was very well done—it was actually written by someone who knew the subject very well and wrote it under an assumed name—and it was really good, actually. But it was very close. I thought it was pretty amazing that they were able to tell the story at the time.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998)— “Dr. Quinn”
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie (1999)/Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Heart Within (2001)—“Dr. Quinn”
JS: Well, that’s a great story as well, because I’d been married to my business manager, who was the top business manager in the whole of Hollywood, and unbeknownst to me, he’d had addiction issues and squandered all our money and left me $9 million in the red, with lawsuits from every major bank. So my world crashed. And I found out that he’d been unbelievably unfaithful. He admitted to, I think, 14 or 15 other women, and I decided not to go any further. So I was pretty devastated, homeless, penniless, and with two small children, and I called my agent and said, “I need to work yesterday.” And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I’ll do anything.”
So he called all the networks, and at that time I’d been pretty much the queen of the miniseries. I’d starred in every miniseries there was, been nominated for most of them, and won lots of stuff. And they said, “Well, if she’ll do anything, we have this movie of the week, but she’d have to sign to do it as a series. But we can pretty much guarantee it won’t be a series, because it’s a woman in the lead. That never works. It’s got family values. That definitely doesn’t work. It’s a medical show. We know that doesn’t work. It’s historical and, even worse, a Western. That doesn’t work.” And that was it. And that was Dr. Quinn.
That night at midnight, I read it. The next morning, I went to Paramount to discuss them developing a comedy series for me, and I told them that I had to say yes or no by 10 o’clock that morning, which was when I was going to be walking into the office for this thing called Dr. Quinn, which if I did it, I’d have to sign a five-year contract. They said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’ll never make it as a series. But it’s a nice piece, so you should do it and make some money, and then we’ll be ready for our series.”
So I signed on the dotted line. An hour later I was in hair and makeup. The following morning, I was filming, and they very quickly stuck me on a horse without even asking me if I rode one. [Laughs.] And that was it. We lasted seven years. And it’s still playing in 98 countries. So Dr. Quinn saved my life, literally, and saved my sanity. And it changed television! Saturday-night television was dead, and we brought it back. We brought back medical shows, and then George Clooney came in after that [with E.R.]. We brought back inspirational shows: 7th Heaven and Touched By An Angel came in after us. And how many female-driven shows are there now? It’s crazy, isn’t it?
AVC: It was groundbreaking. And no one had any idea.
JS: No one. They didn’t believe in it. In fact, the man who tested it told CBS that if they put it on the air after his testing, then he wouldn’t work for them anymore, because they wouldn’t believe the test results! And I had the audacity to go to the up-fronts to go and speak to all the advertisers, and I got up and said, “Hey, I’ve seen the other shows, and I think ours is the winner!” And Jeff Segansky, who was the head of CBS at the time, said, “Why did you say that?” I said, “Because I think it is!” He said, “Well, you didn’t need to say that!” I said, “Okay, well, maybe it is.” And then to everybody’s shock and horror…
AVC: It was.
JS: Yes! It was not supposed to ever work. I think they were doing some housekeeping and trying to get rid of some deals, and they thought, “Oh, we’ll make this, and nobody will ever watch it.” And they were very wrong.
JS: Oh, that was my idea! And, oh, that was a lot of fun. Funny Or Die, I didn’t really know about them. Of course, my kids did. When I went in there, they had 10 or 12 of the best comedy writers sitting around a table, all pitching ideas. And they were good ideas. Normally they’d be very good ideas. But I said, “I think I have an idea for you.” And I told them my idea of Dr. Quinn having nothing but morphine, cocaine, and whiskey, and a leather strap and a saw. [Laughs.] And when Cloud Dancing came by, some willow-bark tea, which is basically aspirin. But that was it. And they put something together that was brilliant, and they said, “Do you think we can get the cast?” And I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to some of them in years.”
But I picked up the phone and called, and everybody else called everybody else, and it turned out we all still had our costumes in our closets. Because we all took some of our costumes when we ended the show because we all thought it couldn’t possibly have been canceled and that we’d come back. Everybody showed up. It was amazing. And it was the first time we’d seen each other in ages, and we’d never had a goodbye. We were canceled when we were on hiatus, so nobody had had a chance to say goodbye to anyone. So it was a very memorable time for all of us, and definitely hilarious!