Actress Jane Seymour has been famous for decades, best known for playing Michaela Quinn in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” the ’90s television show that was broadcast in more than 100 countries and is still shown around the world today. “Dr. Quinn” is one of many notable elements of Seymour’s public life, and I recently spoke to her about some of them, including her foray into fine art.
A collection of her work will be shown at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor, July 1-10, and Seymour will make in-person appearances there on July 1-3.
Q: We’re here to discuss the upcoming exhibition of your art, but I would find it nearly impossible to spend this time with you and not touch on your lifetime in popular culture.
A: Sure, that’s fine.
Q: You were both a young Bond girl, and the oldest woman to ever appear in Playboy.
Q: You are an Emmy award winner.
A: Yes. I have one Emmy win, and received other nominations.
Q: You are a two-time Golden Globe winner.
A: Yes. Although I actually have three if you include the one I received for producing the documentary “I’ll Be Me,” about Glen Campbell.
Q: You named your twin boys after two of your close friends, who happened to be Johnny Cash and Christopher Reeve.
A: Correct. And they are both their godparents as well.
Q: You are an officer of the British Empire.
Q: You’ve starred in film and on Broadway and have inhabited one of the most iconic television roles of all time.
A: “Inhabited” is a good word. Yes.
Q: And along the way you have been a philanthropist, a wildly successful entrepreneur and, as we’ll discuss today, a painter. A fine artist. That barely scratches the surface, but did I miss anything glaring?
A: Well, I’m very proud to have received the Horatio Alger award, and I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Oh, and I believe there is an orchid named after me somewhere. (smiles)
Q: Okay, so now that we summed up the first half of your life … what do you have planned for the second?
A: Oh my God. I’m already so busy that I don’t have time to think about it. It’s crazy. You said the next half of my life. Can you imagine that someone recently had the audacity to ask, “What are you going to do with the next 10 years?” I mean, all I get is 10 years? So I’ll be 81 and done? No. I don’t think so. I’ll have lots to do.
Q: Do you owe your ambition more to nature, or nurture?
A: I’m not ambitious.
A: I mean, I know I’m labeled for that. But I’m productive.
Q: What do you attribute that to?
A: Well, an example is that I became an actress by default. When I was 13, all I wanted was to become a professional ballerina, but I was born with flat feet and a speech impediment. I wasn’t accepted into the Royal Ballet, but I did get into another ballet school where you could also act in theater. I received a partial scholarship, but my parents just couldn’t afford it. And when I auditioned for and managed to dance with the Kirov Ballet, we couldn’t afford the ballet shoes. But I knew how to knit and embroider and all of the above, so I designed and made clothes, took them to some stores in London and sold them, and used the money to buy the ballet shoes. I would have my own company making clothes while I was still a teenager. Meanwhile, I kept working on the flat feet and speech impediment at school before anyone else showed up. It allowed me to point my toes enough that I would eventually become part of one of the greatest ballet companies of all time. Working on my speech enabled me to do pretty much any accent, in any language, when I became an actress.
Q: So the tipping point for your approach to life, was necessity.
A: Absolutely. I didn’t have any money. When I came to America I was living on fumes as well, but I got my first lead film role (in 1976’s “Captains and the Kings”) on the actual day I had to leave due to my immigration. Because of that, I’m still here. And in that role, I was nominated (for an Emmy) for Best Actress.
Q: You become a sex symbol early on when you appeared as Solitaire in the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die” and posed for Playboy, both in 1973. You were almost certainly offered a lot of exploitative roles around that time. Knowing what you were capable of as an actress, did you feel the need to be especially careful with the choices you made after that?
A: It was quite the opposite for me at that time. I was trying to get a green card, and went to a lawyer. They said I would have to work consistently for a year and be nominated for at least one major acting award in order to qualify. In other words, he meant “Goodbye and forget about it.” I took him literally, however, and accepted every job I was offered. There were a lot of things I did early on because I knew I needed to work consistently for a year. Then I was nominated for Best Actress.
Q: You also hit it big early on Broadway.
A: I was told that I could never do theater in America, even though I’d already done it in England on all the classics. The only thing I was interested in was Broadway, and I auditioned for two plays and got both of them on the spot. They didn’t even allow me to go home before informing me. The director just took me aside and said, “Look, I’m not allowed to do this, but can you please show up, because I want you to do this.” The play that my agent said I shouldn’t do was “Amadeus.” The one he wanted me to do was the most expensive play on Broadway, which was called “Frankenstein.” It was awful. It closed on the first day.
I simply said, “I don’t care if I do months of rehearsals and it closes, I’m doing ‘Amadeus.’ I want to work with this material and with these people.” (cast members included Ian McKellen and Tim Curry). The rest is history. It was a huge success and swept the Tony Awards.
Q: Skipping well ahead … your memorable turn in “Wedding Crashers.” A no-brainer for you, or something you had to think about?
A: I read the script and thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I just thought it was brilliant. I knew exactly what I was going to do with that character, and I thought that me doing it, especially after having been Dr. Quinn, would make it even funnier.
Q: Did you have to audition, or did the writers just pencil “Jane Seymour” next to your character?
A: I had to audition for it alongside literally every woman my age or slightly older. For a moment I thought, “Maybe I can’t do this because of ‘Dr. Quinn,’ ” you know? It thought, “My audience will hate this.” Then I read it again and thought, “No, this is too funny. They deserve to see it.” And I also thought, “You know what? I’m an actress. Sometimes I play a serial killer, even though I’m not a serial killer. This time I just happen to be a rich, older lady who had her boobs done who’s unhappily married and hitting on a 40-year-old.”
Q: At one point nothing less than your immigration status was on the line, directly tied to the outcome of your career. Are you freer in what you’re willing to try, now that you’re so well established and the stakes are lower?
A: I’m much freer now. And that would apply to my acting, producing, philanthropy, art and design. I feel like, what have I got to lose? I mean, let’s just live in the moment and be authentic and roll with the punches in a world that is throwing plenty of punches. I never imagined this life. I work really hard at what I do, but I wake up every day looking outside and watching the birds fly by over the ocean. I often wonder how did this ever happen to someone from Hillingdon (Seymour’s hometown in England).
Q: You have a somewhat trivial yet very interesting relationship with popular music. For one, you married Freddie Mercury. Sort of.
A: As married as Freddie ever got (laughs). Yes, we were “married” at the Royal Albert Hall during a charity event.
Q: It was organized by Bob Geldof in 1985, the same year he produced Live Aid. How did this come about?
A: When I was first presented to the queen of England, I was told by a journalist that there were these new designers called David and Liz Emanuel with whom I should meet. They let me borrow a dress, which I wore to meet the queen. I was the first person to wear their clothes publicly, and they would later famously do Princess Diana’s dress when she got married. So when they announced that they were doing this big fashion show for charity and pretty much every English celebrity was in it, they explained the idea to me and asked me to be the bride.
Q: On another front, Radiohead’s Ok Computer was recently named the 42nd greatest album in history by Rolling Stone magazine. Other publications and countless number of fans consider it the best album of the 1990s.
Q: It was recorded in your home.
A: It was. I had this home that was over a thousand years old — it dates back to 950 AD — and it constantly had to be repaired. It was a ridiculous investment, really. But I knew it had the greatest sound that could be found anywhere in England. It has a big empty ballroom that gives off four-second reverberation. At one point I rented it out to The Cure so that they could record there, and they happened to be friends with Radiohead. They recommended it to them, who rented it from me to record Ok Computer. Johnny Cash came there. Peter Gabriel kept trying to buy the house because he thought it was such an amazing musical place.
We have dubious credits as well. Robbie Williams did an episode of “MTV Cribs” there without my permission. Duran Duran broke up there. It goes on and on.
Q: Have you ever listened to Ok Computer? It’s a challenging listen.
A: It is a challenging listen. I didn’t get it at all. My kids were like, “Mom, you don’t understand. This is the most important album ever!” When Radiohead were playing in Santa Barbara I went to see them and I met them all. They were absolutely lovely guys.
Q: Turning to your art, I’m a journalist who, at times, loathes writing. Sometimes the only enjoyable part is when someone likes what I’ve done. Yet every painter I have ever spoken to says that they love the process of creating — the actual doing of it — more than anything else.
A: Absolutely. The enjoyment is the lone reason I do it. Not for money, but for myself. I don’t even like to part with my paintings, but what am I going to do with all of this art when you only have so many walls? I like to look at other artists on my walls, too!
Q: Becoming a commercial artist seems like it might have been another leap into the “deep end of the pool” for you.
A: Sure. When I did my first show, I was worried that anyone would like (the art) at all. And of course, all the critics came by — the art teachers and professors — and had this and that to say about it. But then to their shock and horror, people said, “I want that one, because it speaks to me.” “I want this or that one.” I was thrilled. And the coolest thing for me was having a chance to talk to people and finding out why they wanted that specific painting.
Q: If you were bringing someone to an art gallery to view your work, how would you describe what they were about to see?
A: I’m really a colorist. I celebrate color. I love to paint waves with watercolors, and you’ll see the acid greens and the blues and so much other color in there. This is one of my wave paintings on fabric (points to a scarf she is wearing).
I do have some black and white pieces, actually quite a few, that are very spontaneous line drawings. I love to do those as well, and sometimes I’ll blend the two together. I’ll do a very spontaneous color piece with lots of different colors, and then come in and blend the line drawing after.
Q: The piece of yours that I find most intriguing stems from the most basic idea: “Mike,” a portrait of you as your character from “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” I find, be it consciously or subconsciously, there is often a bit of sabotage in self-portraits. Artists tend to distort themselves, anywhere from a little to a lot. That is not at all the case with “Mike.” You are captured in all of your long-celebrated beauty. It’s something you could imagine an admirer painting, but you painted it.
A: I’ve been a huge John Singer Sargent fan, and have studied how to paint in that style. That particular painting was before I learned how to do that. Michaela Quinn the character, and the experience working on the show, saved my life. I was bankrupt and very upset, having gone through divorce, etc. It was a very intense time in my life. So it was very healing to play that character.
Q: You treat her with a degree of reverence.
A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: Was the source a photograph, or a screen shot from the show, or …?
A: A photograph. A woman called Andrea took that, and she was a fan. We filmed “Dr. Quinn” in a public park, so anyone and everyone would be there. People came from all over the world. When we were filming, it might as well have been theater because they were standing right there watching us, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning. Andrea was a nurse in an intensive care for babies, and photography was her hobby. When she took that, I was sort of contemplating life between takes. I wasn’t acting or posing. I was just in a space, and she captured that moment brilliantly. I’ve looked at a million photographs of myself that I could have used for that portrait, but the one that spoke to me as the most authentic, was hers.
Q: Undoubtedly a fair amount of people who are interested in your art are also fans of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” During the show’s initial run, I’m sure you encountered fans here or there, but its conclusion predates the Comic Con boom, and social media. Is it fun to be able to meet your public, so to speak?
A: Very much so. Especially because (meeting people who have bought her artwork) is not some sort of meet-and-greet, autograph kind of scenario. This stems from them having chosen something that is uniquely from my hand, from my heart, and from my home, to them. They’ll have a piece of me.
Q: It requires a far greater personal commitment than simply appreciating someone’s acting.
A: Absolutely. It’s not something they intend to binge watch and then sort of say, “Oh, I did that. Moving on.” No, this will actually be in their home every day, their most personal space, where they’ll see it and live with it. My work is all me, in the sense that no one’s asked me to do it and there is no script or anything like that. It’s very authentic.
Q: You have become nearly synonymous with the Open Heart symbol that you created, and utilize in your jewelry and art. You even named your charitable foundation after it.
A: When I came up with the Open Heart, it was originally just a little painting done in red. What it represented to me was my mother’s advice for how to deal with challenges in life. She’d been through World War II in a horrible way, in a Japanese camp in Indonesia for three and a half years. She couldn’t talk about it, but she would say, “In life, everyone has challenges and they close off their hearts. But if you open your heart, you can give and receive love, and if you can do that, you can help someone else and you’ll have purpose.” So this would became a very important theme for me.
My original painting of the Open Heart, like the ones we have in the gallery, eventually became a single necklace that I wore on “Dancing With the Stars.” Then I trademarked it, which is apparently unheard of — being able to trademark a heart of any kind. Then it evolved into sculptures, and I now have sculptures in public places all over America and Canada. I have two more coming up very soon — one in Calgary, and another in Pittsburgh.
Q: I’ve seen you visit cities when those sculptures are unveiled, and you’ll be bringing your paintings to New Jersey at the beginning of next month. I know you own a gallery of your own. How do you choose what to take with you?
A: Yes, my gallery is called Coral Canyon Publishing and I have everything there that isn’t showing or being stored. The gallery who is hosting my work often picks the pieces for their show. Ocean Galleries came out and picked their show. We showed them all the new work, which they thought was really great, and then they chose what they wanted. I don’t know what they picked, so one of the exciting moments for me is when I arrive and walk the exhibit and say, “Oh my God, I forgot that I did that. That’s actually really good.” Or sometimes, “How come I didn’t keep that one?” (laughs). But I know I can’t.
In regard to what you said earlier, I do love the process the most. But it is exciting when they’re all being hung as a collection, because it’s like watching clips from every movie I’ve been in. Sometimes I pinch myself and say, “Wow, I did a lot of painting.” It’s a full body of work.
Q: A large collection of many different things that added up. That’s basically your biography.
A: You’re right, that is my biography. (smiles) Many different things. On my headstone I think it will simply say, “She was busy.”
“Jane Seymour: Up Close and Personal — The Exhibition” will be at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor, July 1-10. Meet-the-Artist appearances are scheduled for July 1-2 from 6 to 9 p.m. as well as July 3 from noon to 3 p.m.
Seymour’s web site is JaneSeymour.com.
Watch Seymour in her current TV series “Harry Wild” on acorn.tv.
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