How did you begin your career in acting?
It started out with going to school in kindergarten and on the first day being selected to stand to one side and I thought I was so special and then they came to me and told my parents and me that I would have to come in earlier because I had a speech impediment and flat feet. So, I was required to take dance class and walk to develop arches in my feet and get over my speech impediment because I couldn’t pronounce the “R.” So needless to say I became totally hooked on ballet, decided I was going to be the next prima ballerina, managed to not just pronounce my “Rs” but loved doing drama and learned how to sing, play a bunch of instruments, won a bunch of dance competitions and ended up with a scholarship to one of the best drama and dance schools in England. And from there I was a ballerina, injured myself in a dance class and segued in the same school to full-time drama where I won some prizes and stuff and the next thing I knew I was starring in movies and television. Out of challenge came opportunity. And at my speaking engagements I always say that people who were born with everything going perfect, for whom everything came easy, invariably they are not the ones who have succeeded as much as, in my experience, as the ones who have had something they had to overcome. I became an actress by default. I had great success in England, I came to America when I was 26, because in England I was told I was a terrific actress but they thought I looked to exotic, I looked Eurasian and didn’t sound like the girl next door, the working class woman. So I went to America and I was told if I could lose my English accent, then I could start working here. So I came here and never stopped acting.
You’ve both acted and produced, is there one role you prefer over the other?
I have a very very varied career which a lot of people don’t seem to know. I love to produce, because I’ve found that if you want to make material that no one is offering you, you have to create your own scripts, find your own writers, and fight for it and make it. For example, a famous film that I wasn’t named on but I definitely was involved with producing was Walk the Line. My ex-husband James and I worked on that for 11 years and that came from having the trust and friendship of Johnny Cash and June. They turned to us and said we don’t trust anyone but you to tell our story, what do you think (the story) is? We thought about it and we came back and said we thought it was about redemption, more even than (their) own story. So then came Walk the Line which was ultimately directed by Jim Mangold, and James got the producing credit and for some reason I didn’t so that’s probably why we aren’t married now. (laughter) And then I was involved with the Glenn Campbell thing (the film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me), I was involved in that from start to the end, I got executive producer on that one but I was very much involved both financially and physically with that. I love being behind the camera as well. I love that side of things. I’ve never directed and that’s because during Dr. Quinn, it was such a tough schedule and it was such a lot of work anyway, it seemed to me insane for any of the actors to take that on in addition to acting. It was so hard to get in on time and on budget, so traditionally you end up cutting your teeth on your own tv show but instead I chose to be involved — again without any credit — in coming up with ideas for the characters. I think about six (episodes) were my ideas that I would pitch to the writing team and then they would write and I would get very excited as I realized they were my stories. While I didn’t always get credit, to me, being on both sides of the camera is my favorite and even when I’m just acting on something I’m always very involved with seeing what they’re doing and how it’s being edited and looking at the big picture rather than just my part.
Where did the inspiration for Open Hearts come from?
It began with the art. When I was 40, just before I began Dr. Quinn, I married my business manager who was one of the top business managers in our industry. He represented every major star. I thought being married to him was the safest thing I could do. He managed to lose all our money and my money and leave me $9 million in the red with lawsuits from every major bank including the FDIC. My mother was with me when I found out all the betrayals and everything that had happened. My mother had always inspired me having survived herself an internment camp during WWII for three and a half years in Indonesia under the Japanese. She said, “darling in life there will be challenges, and when there are, you have to accept what they are and open your heart and mind and reach out, and there will always be someone worse off than you. And if you can help someone else, especially from the perspective of something you’ve been through, it will give you purpose, and when you have purpose, love will come into your life.” And that was my what my sisters and I grew up with — learning how to use adversity and move forward. I started painting again when I was 40 and I went to a fundraiser, I knew I was about to be bankrupt and I didn’t know what bankrupt was but I was terrified. I knew I was going to lose my home and I had no money. But I gave the last of my money I had at an event to prevent child abuse — I thought child abuse was the worst thing that could possibly happen. While I was donating what little I had in my wallet, it was to enter a drawing to have a painting done of my children, which I didn’t understand bankruptcy, but I was pretty sure the bank wouldn’t be interested in that (the painting). So I met this artist and he came to my home and saw these little finger paintings I had done and said “oh who did these?” and I said “these? I did.” And he said, “they’re really good, are you an artist?. And I said, “not really, I could have gone to college to do art but I didn’t.” And he said, “I’ll give you some free lessons,” when he heard I had no money. And the next thing I knew, it was the key for me to get out of my fear and abject sadness and anger and it was a very meditative approach — he taught me watercolor and you can’t rush watercolor. It’s a very serene and difficult medium. And it’s something I could take with me wherever I went. Thanks to that I became a watercolor artist and then I got Dr. Quinn and I was painting on the set and everyone on the set wanted a copy of my painting. Then they wanted it on t-shirts and they wanted it on handbags then they next thing I knew I was showing in major art shows. Then I had my paintings at the Guggenheim and I was raising $25,000 for the Make-A-Wish foundation with one painting and I went OK, something I love is something that connects with people and so I ended up with a major art career. I have three art shows this year, I used to do about 12 a year, but I was the artist for the Olympics three times for the American team and have designed everything from that to now of course the Open Hearts. I was commissioned by California pistachios and the American Heart Association and they were doing a campaign to alert women to heart disease and they asked me to come up with a series of four paintings that could be used as greeting cards. When I was doing that, I painted myself as a woman in a red dress, I painted some florals and the single open heart and I realized I’d left it open and I realized my mother had always talked about having an open heart. And so I then played with it and joined another open heart to it and I went wait a minute, I think I’ve got something here. I really loved that image of connecting. So I trademarked it and found out in the history of trademarking I’d come across a heart that uniquely no one else had. My mother then had a stroke and her favorite show in the world was Dancing with the Stars and I knew if I did it I would never see her again. She uttered one word in seven months before she died and she said YES when I told her I was asked to do (DWTS). So in her honor, I had a single open heart necklace made by a friend who’s a jeweler. I wore it on the show. I randomly met the people who ran the biggest company in America, I’m not sure in the world but definitely England, America and Canada. I didn’t know who they were and they asked about what I was wearing and I told them and they said you don’t know who we are do you? And I said your names are whatever and they laughed and said no we’re the No. 1 jewelers and we’re interested in what you’ve got around your neck and who we can we talk to about it. The rest is history. They made a deal with me and I told them the deal had to include a foundation in which we would honor and raise money and accelerate smaller, lesser-known charities who lived with an open heart and exemplified the meaning behind it and the story of what it meant needed to be available to the people who would purchase the jewelry. It’s been 8 or 9 years now and it’s been hugely successful. I constantly come up with new ideas. We’ve had open heart angels, open heart butterflies, peace love and an open heart, a new one I just launched called the road ahead which has no open hearts but follows the same philosophy: moving forward in life after a challenge. And the other one we are introducing now is called ripple effect, which is when you touch someone by doing something nice or helpful and you have no idea the degree to which that ripples or moves through their lives, but then it touches other people down the line. It started out with paintings and sculpture, then this one off piece of jewelry which became a big jewelry collection and from there I have picture frames, I have open heart handbags. I have 14 or 15 licenses now and I’m working on a new one with rugs which will incorporate the open hearts. But I have a major design world I work in. I also design furniture with Michael Amini that has nothing to do with open hearts at all. So I’ve really taken my love of art, creating my own fashion, creating my own clothes, designing my homes and now working with people who are the top people in those businesses which is very exciting. And on top of all of that I’m still acting and writing and producing. It’s a very full life. Not to mention fundraising which is I think the hardest.
Which leads me to my next question, what do you do in your free time? Or maybe the better question is do you even have free time?
I do, and when I do, I snatch it. When I go off to work somewhere, for example I had a three-day speaking engagement in Australia, and I figured once I was there I may as well see the rest of Australia and New Zealand. So I did, and I ended up having the most extraordinary time. I ended up meeting the Maori tribe in New Zealand who came up with a design that spoke to who I was and what I was and that was very similar, it had elements of what I’d done with the Open Hearts, so it was a cultural exchange that was magical. I just came back from Mexico to San Miguel de Allende, where not so many tourists go, but it’s the Santa Fe of Mexico, it’s nothing but artists communities and enormous amount of inspiration for me for some of the things I’m doing. I’m going to Dubai to do some speaking engagements — that’s the next trip I have, I’m very excited. I’m hoping to connect with a member of the royal family there and speak about philanthropy and really major cultural experience. I love to travel. My other favorite thing to do is stay home and have my children and grandchildren and sisters and friends and just enjoy the food that I grow in the back garden and the friends that I have and the people I meet along the way. So yes, I snatch my spare time.
Please explain what the Open Hearts Foundation does and what starting that organization has meant to you.
The Open Hearts Foundation is what we call and accelerator, a pass through foundation. So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and come up with yet another cancer or Alzheimer's or heart disease organization, there’s tons of huge ones out there that everyone knows about. But a lot of other people are interested in helping fund smaller organizations that are meeting a specific niche that bigger organizations don’t deal with — where we can tell the story of what the need is and how the people who started the organization came to be there. So we tell there story of how they overcame whatever they had to overcome and how they chose to pay it forward to other people and how they’ve specifically been affected by whatever it is. For example, Glenn Campbell was honored for being open and allowing us to film him dealing with the disease of Alzheimer’s and that was huge that he allowed us to do that. And now his widow Kim Campbell is doing something called caregiving.org and she’s helping caregivers. Because you know of the people who have Alzheimer’s, but it’s the caregivers who quite often lose their lives helping the person they’re taking care of. This year we dealt with Lyme disease. Apparently Lyme disease is worse than aids in America. Right now with amazing medication and science that they’ve come up with for aids, Lyme is something people are completely debilitated by and no one knows much about it or what to do. So we’re involved with Lyme, then another organization that we loved called Global Mobility. David Richards has been working on this for years now and he provides free wheelchairs that are specifically fitted to the people who need them in 22 different countries around the world. These are people who quite often have cerebral palsy, people who have never been able to sit up ever in their lives, let alone be mobile. They lie on mats on the ground somewhere in the village and someone picks them up and throws them over their shoulder and trudges down to wherever the next place is where they put them down on the ground. So when these people get these chairs that fit them and get this mobility, you just pour tears of gratitude, you can’t imagine what an amazing thing it is. And of course it’s a ripple effect, it doesn’t just affect the person who needs the chair, and it’s not just the family who’s trying to help this person, it’s the entire village. That’s huge! The other one we dealt with this year was called Exceptional Minds. This is a woman who’s only child was severely autistic and her husband died when the child was seven. She was big in the entertainment business doing special effects and movies and her best friend was one of the top special effects animators in the industry. They decided that this kid as he was growing up was really good on the computer and they wondered if he could be an animator. He was very severely autistic but it turned out he could do a lot of the skills that are required of animators for major major movies. As we know in movies now, there’s more work in the backrooms with animation and special effects than there are in the movies themselves. And they started it all at this school — they teach these young adults and teach them how to deal with life, how to say hello and explain who they are. And they actually then get some work that is paid, as animators, on major motion pictures that we are watching right now. 99% of people with severe autism on the spectrum literally spend their lives tucked away with parents terrified that their kids will outlive them and what will happen to them. They can’t get jobs, occasionally they can bag groceries but that’s about it. And they have exceptional minds and when they learn how to do this, they’re so excited. They do amazing work and animation and no one had tapped into that (before this foundation).
So we have big fundraisers, tell their stories and the people who support our foundation know that we cherry pick specific organizations. We then, as we say, accelerate them. Years after we’ve helped them financially and talked about what they do, we’ve heard of stories where they’ve gone. For example, one organization has grown from being in two hospitals to now 16. So they grow. My dream is to do this in a much wider scale all over the country and that’s what we’re doing. It speaks to my mother’s message. It encourages people to see what they can do for others and what they can do to help themselves by helping others.
What motivated you to enter the world of creating home decor?
I grew up with no money, not in poverty but we didn’t go out and buy new things. And I’ve always loved vintage. I learned how to sew at an early age. So I would make my own pillows, make my own curtains. I would buy things in garage sales and put homes and things together that way and I developed my own design skills based on necessity. And I then realized it was really fun to do and if I worked with people who could help me with some of the design elements. And I worked with them and obviously I had a specific taste and vision and with color and texture. I love fabrics. I started out with the tops of beds with Saks Inc. I did a whole line then it went to table tops and then children’s clothing based on my children’s books and also my paintings became fabric designs. I did fabric designs for a clothing company for many years and it just sort of segued and continued. It’s something I love and something I have a passion for. The furniture is interesting because commercially you have to do something people want to buy as opposed to something you want in your house. So the collections I do are based on the kinds of consumers that the company I work with have but also make it something different and have an element of fantasy to it so it was something special and not something ordinary.
I was talking to my publisher about Somewhere in Time and I read that Christopher Reeve is the godfather of one of your sons. How was your experience working with him on that film and what was the highlight of that experience?
That in itself is a huge story. When I first came to America I had to deal with sexual harassment in a really horrible way to the degree that I was terrified, went back to England and didn’t work for a year. By the time I came back to Hollywood, the same person tried to do it again but somehow I ended up working for him without him realizing he’d met me before, and out of that came Somewhere in Time. So that is a pretty important story in that part of what I do is to accept things that have happened in life and be open minded and open hearted and move forward rather than step back and go “never again, not me,” whatever. When I went in to work with Christopher Reeve, I found out that he had personally picked me over ten other girls and the two of us just hit it off straight away. We really bonded, we had an amazing deep relationship whilst making the movie — we were both single at the time. Then through certain circumstances he found out his ex-girlfriend was pregnant and that was it, so we were never able to be together again other than as friends. And we remained very close until the day he died. Dana and I became very good friends and when he was in his chair and had to do a lot of public appearances and she couldn’t always be there, sometimes she would ask if I would go and be there with him and run interference for him and be his cheerleader. Chris and I had an amazing relationship and I was so thrilled that one of my children could be his godson. It has been a key moment in my life making that film.
Who is the person you most admire and how has he or she shaped you personally or professionally?
I would say my mother. And also in terms of being a celebrity or being an actress I would say the late Lord (Richard) Attenborough. He was the first person to hire me when I was 17, as a dancer who had one line dancing and singing in his first film. Eventually I married his son and first hand I learned from him how to conduct yourself as a member of the creative community. He was not just a great actor but he was a great speaker, major humanitarian, a great father, he was a very well-rounded person, a great director, producer, he was an art collector, too. I learned an enormous amount from him too. I learned how to deal with fame and critics and criticism and the ups and downs of a career.