Profile: Sophie McDonald

“When I began acting, I had a vague idea that I only wanted to do things that meant something to me and that had a certain standard to them. I find that I usually have a year or two between movies. If something good comes along, that’s great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Being selective has paid off for Theresa Russell, who stars with Bill Murray in Columbia Pictures’ “The Razor’s Edge,” directed by John Byrum. After four previous screen roles, Russell now plays Sophie, one of Larry Darrell’s closest childhood friends who meets up with him years later in Paris after both have undergone some major personal changes.

Theresa Russell as Sophie McDonald

“When I first met with Bill and John, they didn’t have a finished script of ‘The Razor’s Edge’ to show me, so I read the book. Then when I was sent a script, I really fell in love with Sophie–the character they asked me to play. Sophie was perfect, and, despite having a new baby to look after, I couldn’t find an excuse not to do it,” says Russell. “It’s a great role and a wonderful story.”

Coincidentally, Russell had seen the 1946 screen version of “The Razor’s Edge” starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney not long before she was asked to appear in the new film of W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel. She explains, “I was starting a film for director Nicholas Roeg, who was very conscious of the behaviour and manners of the ’40s, as that was the period in which “Eureka” (her third film) was set. As Gene Tierney was one of the great stars of that era, I screened as many of her films as I could. ‘The Razor’s Edge’ happened to be one of them.”

Research and study are nothing new for Russell, as her entry into show business was a well-planned, calculated risk. Upon hearing that Elia Kazan was casting “The Last Tycoon,” Russell managed to get herself into a casting session without the help of an agent or connection. She won a screen test and, finally, the coveted role. “It’s easier to get to the top when you’re shooting for the top. I started my career working with Robert De Niro, Robert Mitchum and Elia Kazan, which is pretty high up the ladder!”

Russell’s ascent up that ladder began after her family moved from San Diego to Burbank, where, at the age of 16, the young actress left Burbank High School to join the Lee Strasberg Institute in Hollywood. “It was only after I’d been there to see what it was like that I decided to become an actress,” she recalls. “That’s when acting really got into my blood.” “The Last Tycoon” opened doors for Russell, as her fine performance and strong reviews captured the public’s attention, as well as the attention of many in Hollywood, including Dustin Hoffman. Impressed with her screen debut, Hoffman asked Russell to join him in the film “Straight Time.”

“Originally, Dustin was going to direct the film as well as star in it,” says Russell. “He decided at the last minute not to direct it but still wanted me to play opposite him. We did sort of a ‘video test’ for the new director, Ulu Grosbard, who liked it and away we went.” As was the case with “The Last Tycoon” and “Straight Time,” it was another year before Russell worked on her next project, this time making her television debut in the miniseries “Blind Ambition,” which was based on John Dean’s Watergate revelations. And again, another year later, Russell would start her third feature film. This, however, was one that would change her life. Director Nicholas Roeg had seen Russell in both “The Last Tycoon” and “Straight Time” and decided he wanted her for the female lead in his next film, “Bad Timing.” In Europe at the time, Roeg sent the script to her agent, who, Russell recalls, “wanted me to do another film, which was also filming in Europe, but when I read the script of ‘Bad Timing’ I felt I just had to play that part.”

Roeg met with Russell in Los Angeles while she was still filming “Blind Ambition” and just on the basis of that meeting offered her the part. A few months later, she travelled to Europe for the first time in her life and started filming. What began as a mutual good first impression soon developed beyond a strictly business relationship–Theresa and Nicholas Roeg have been together ever since and now have a baby son named Jack. Russell was able to complete yet another picture for
Roeg, “Eureka,” before she became pregnant. She then turned down several plum roles, including one in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,”before the opportunity came to star opposite Bill Murray in “The Razor’s Edge.”

If Theresa Russell’s pattern repeats itself, it could  be another year before she begins work on another picture. For this talented actress, though, that’s not at all a negative. “I don’t know which I like best,” she queries, “being at home and trying to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit or getting it all together in front of the camera.” So far, the pieces seem to be fitting together nicely.

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