Among the many stunning visual set pieces with which Dario Argento’s eccentric oeuvre is freighted, one of the most fondly remembered by his fans is the surrealistic tour-de-force from Inferno (1980) in which poetess Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) goes diving for her keys in a submerged ballroom, only to encounter a previous victim of The Mother Of Darkness…
Pasta Paura buffs will also recognise Miracle as one of the terrorised teens in Aldo Lado’s brutal Night Train Murders (1975) and many Freudstein followers will probably recall her turn as the bitchy psychic in David Schmoeller’s Puppet Master (1989). Irene’s powerful performance in Midnight Express (1978) was rewarded with a Golden Globe and this engaging Oklahoma-born actress has kept busy with big screen and theatrical roles, latterly branching out into producing and directing for herself. The breadth of her artistic vision (including environmental concerns and the rights of indigenous peoples) is informed by a peripatetic and adventurous life that has, on occasion, seen her braving situations far scarier than anything even Dario Argento could have dreamed up.
It’s a real pleasure to launch the blog with a portrait of this beguiling, multi-talented lady, whose constant encouragement has been a key factor in getting it off the ground. Thanks, pal!
Irene, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us… or, as your recent filmography suggests, do you prefer to be addressed as Klara these days?
I prefer Irene. Klara is my first name but I’ve always gone by middle name.
You’ve been blessed with a wonderful surname, which is a gift to people writing about you… do you think it’s helped you stand out when casting directors are looking at people’s resumes?
Most certainly. I am often greeted with a ‘miracle’ joke, e.g: “It’s a MIRACLE” or “Miracles do exist”… it’s always a delightful opener.
Can you please tell us something about your early life and how you picked up the acting bug?
It fell into my lap, but I do believe it was my guiding angels who dumped it there, with a thud, as if to say, “This is your path, now run for it”. One summer while visiting my father in Nairobi, Kenya, I was teaching ballet. I always passed the 19th Century Norfolk Hotel on my way home. An Italian producer happened to be staying there. He spotted me from its outdoor cafe and offered his card. He was scouting locations for an Antonioni film and asked if I’d be interested in acting. At the time, I didn’t take him seriously. Some days later a crisis broke out in which JM Kariuki was found dead in the Ngong Hills. His body had been chopped to pieces and thrown onto the side of a road where baboons were found nibbling at him. It was, and is believed that President Kenyatta had him executed, as he was next in line for the presidency and was expected to win the coming elections. Anyone associated with JM or his family was now in danger, and I had dined at their home on occasion. I was among many who’d received threatening calls, and soon heard that some people had already been silenced with a shot to the head. I fled the country with just my handbag, taking the only seat left on the last airplane leaving, and it happened to be headed for Italy. I knew but one person in Italy, and it was that producer who’d handed me his card in Nairobi.
Which led to you hanging out with Antonioni, Pasolini, Fellini and Bertolucci… absolute titans of Cinema!
When I landed in Rome I called this producer. He was in Sardinia, and quickly arranged a flight for me to meet him and his family there. My taxi let me out at a remote area along the Sardinian coastline, where an enormous white bubble sat, nestled amongst the craggy rocks. I knocked on the door, was greeted by a maid, assured that the producer would be back soon and was shown to my room. Feeling exhausted from not having slept in 48 hours, I had a shower, crawled into my crisp white sheets and fell asleep to the sound of bird calls and waves crashing. The next morning I found myself seated at a kitchen alcove where several people were eating breakfast. After introductions around the table, I turned to the gentleman next to me and asked, “So what do you do”? He was startled. “You don’t know who I am!?!” It was Michelangelo Antonioni. Charmed by my ignorance, he turned to the other guests at the table: “She’s marvellous, so fresh, so innocent”! Everybody laughed with him, all chattering in Italian. They were Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini. During the next few days, Michelangelo followed me around the house with his Super8 camera as I sunbathed, read or played ping-pong with other guests. I wish I had a copy of that film. Bernardo and Michelangelo would later become dear friends.
So you wound up acting in Italy…
I needed a job. My only friends were filmmakers. It was a natural progression. I was grateful to be working, but had no idea how fortunate I was. It all felt so organic — my work, my friends, my life in Rome.
Your screen debut was in Aldo Lado’s notorious Night Train Murders. You’re so young in that… was it as gruelling an experience to make that film as it is to watch it?
I tend not to see films I’ve done. I’ve never liked seeing myself on the big screen. I was especially put off when I learned about the pending rape sequence but was relieved it wouldn’t be ME subjected to that ordeal, and felt like having to run around half naked was a fair trade off. In any case, nudity wasn’t such a big deal to me — I’ve always thought of my body as an instrument for my craft. I’m not sure I’d have taken the job if I had any idea about the rape sequence beforehand. A few months ago, I finally did watch Night Train Murders, to prepare an interview for the Blu-Ray edition. It was like watching someone else, in another lifetime, from another dimension — another “me”, like science-fiction.
I was wondering if Flavio Bucci, Gianfranco De Grassi and Macha Meril tried to make it easier for you and Laura D’Angelo by cracking jokes and being friendly on set, or whether Lado kept them in character to maintain the tension on screen?
I have strong memories of Flavio Bucci. He was easy going, supportive and kind. Funny guy, too! I remember Macha as being very private and insular, so I didn’t have much interaction with her. Everyone on that set was respectful and gentle with me.
Large parts of Night Train Murders seem to have been actually shot on a moving train… were there any particular logistical difficulties involved in shooting like that?
No doubt that held challenges for the film crew, but for me, working on an actual train gave authenticity to the story we were playing out. I don’t recall having shot anything on movie sets. We were in Germany for the whole shoot.
Lado’s films are often thinly-veiled Marxist allegories… did he talk to you and the other actors about the message he was trying to get across to the viewer?
No, I wasn’t given to much to work with, just told that I was one of two friends on vacation who run into some thugs along the way. It seemed innocent enough, so you can imagine my shock when they started bringing knives out!
The film is pretty closely modelled on Wes Craven’s controversial The Last House On The Left. Were you aware of, or did you subsequently become aware of, that film?
I was never into horror, not the blood and guts kind. Funny, isn’t it? Given the films I’ve ended up doing, my taste often surprises people. I do love Gothic, atmospheric stories, even if they include touches of horror — provided they have a psychological bent, and heart. Vampire films in the manner of Anne Rice, or James Whale’s original movie of Frankenstein, or The Picture of Dorian Grey are favourites. Lately, I’m totally hooked on the Penny Dreadful TV series. It combines everything I do like about these genres in a marvellous way.
In the UK during the 1980s there was a big moral panic about such horror movies becoming available on home video. The yellow press over here dubbed them “video nasties” and the police had an official list of banned titles… were you aware that you appeared in two of them (Night Train Murders and Inferno)? And what are your views on censorship and the alleged bad influence of horror films?
I had not heard about the “video nasties” scandal, but think it sounds like an appropriate term. Let’s face it, these films ARE trashy. I wouldn’t want my kids watching stuff like that. If I’d had children at the time of making these films I doubt I’d have made them at all. Some fans won’t like hearing this, but I’m most proud of my work in Midnight Express and theatre work. I made those “horror” films because I liked the director or because I wanted to keep working.
Your sophomore film appearance was in the “sexy comedy” La Portiera Nuda, directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cozzi was better known as a sci-fi specialist and later as an assistant to Dario Argento… I wondered how you found working with him?
I LOVED working with Luigi. I’ve only recently seen the film for the first time and found it funny. I do have memories of having to be constantly aware of where the camera was at any given moment. The angles felt invasive to me; I often called my agent to alert him to situations on the set. In one particular instance the costume department wanted to shave my pubes for a bath scene. No way: My agent managed to tone down any expectations of filming the lower part of my body that day. In another scene I had to climb a tall ladder wearing garter belts, supposedly to dust something up high, and the camera was shooting from very very low, below. All I could do was to keep pulling my skirt down and prayed for something more intellectually challenging in my future. All in all it was a fun experience, though.
Your most high profile role (for which you received a Golden Globe) has been that in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express… how were you cast for that role?
I moved to Los Angeles from Italy just three months prior to getting the role. I ran into a friend, Ibrahim Moussa, who’d also moved there from Rome. In one breath he told me he’d just opened a Talent Agency, while hugging me with “Ciao, Irene, come stai? I’ve got the perfect part for you, they are making a decision today, hurry! Here’s a copy of the script. Go home and read it.” Before I could respond, an audition was set up for that afternoon. I had three hours to race home, read the script and find the perfect outfit before making the audition. First I tried out for the director, Alan Parker, and he left. Then the producer, David Puttnam walked in the room and I auditioned all over again. Later, when they’d both gone, I reached for my bag and found something sticking out of the top opening, it was a 1940’s antique toy with a note from David which said, “I don’t know about the part, but you sure got me”. By the time I got home, the phone rang. “PACK YOUR BAGS, YOU GOT THE PART”! Contracts were drawn up and the next morning I was flying to London, then on to Malta. The whole thing happened in what seemed like a heartbeat.
The scene where you visit Billy in the Turkish jail could have come across as really tacky and exploitative but it turned out to be very powerful and moving… which testifies to the acting talents of you and Brad Davis (above, with Barbara Bouchet on left) for one thing, but I was wondering how Parker worked with you establish the correct tone for that scene.
Alan created intimacy and privacy for us by having a box made which only he and the DP could see into. So we shot that scene with just the three or four of us. I was given the freedom to do the scene as I wanted. I gave him what he was looking for in my initial audition and that’s what he wanted for the film.
The film was very controversial in Turkey because of the way it allegedly exaggerated the harshness of conditions in that country’s penal system… has anybody ever brought this up with you? Do you think it’s a fair criticism?
I’ve definitely heard those objections, but there are certainly other prisons whose conditions reflect what was depicted in Midnight Express. This film just happened to be about Turkey, but it could have been about numerous places on this planet.
You made a big splash, if you’ll pardon the feeble pun, in Dario Argento’s Inferno… indeed, your character virtually carries the first third of the picture… yet we gather that you had only minimal contact with Dario?
Dario seemed to have his hands full with other aspects of making the film rather than focusing on his actors. I always felt honoured and supported by Dario. He’s a very introspective, shy and genuine man with a somewhat elusive personality.
When he was missing from the shoot, due to his bout of hepatitis or whatever, who was calling the shots? One or more of his assistants (Gianlorenzo Battaglia, Andrea Piazzesi, Lamberto Bava)?
I believe it was Bava, mostly.
You weren’t well yourself, either, were you? Wasn’t your hair falling out?
Actually I was very fit while making the film. Just before shooting began I was hit with a flu bug and suffered a high fever. It was only after arriving in Rome that (to my horror) my hair starting to fall out in clumps. Poor Dario! He thought I had some terminal disease — and worse, that I’d deceived him!
My hair stylist Giancarlo di Leonardis (above) had the genius to invent special locks of hair to braid into tiny springs that could be attached to my hair to fill in the sparser areas. After the film I got an Annie Lenox style cut and let it grow back, which it did, thick and luxuriant as ever. Dario’s jitters over my health were so intense that for a while there were whacky rumors circulated that I’d died. News to me!
Some of your scenes were cut, including your discovery of the bookseller’s body in Central Park… much has been written about how much of Inferno was actually shot in New York and what was recreated on a Roman soundstage…
As I recall, we were in New York for two weeks, and shot all of the lake scenes (including dead bodies and mice) in Central Park.
Any memories of other participants in the movie, e.g. Daria Nicolodi (who is usually given the credit for steering Argento’s work in the direction of the occult), the great Alida Valli or Argento’s producer father, Salvatore?
Alida was nurturing and warm, a real sweetheart. I wish I’d known then what an amazing actress she was. It was not until much later that I finally encountered The Third Man. My God, what a radiant beauty she was! Salvatore was often on the set. We didn’t talk much but he always emanated the presence of being the Rock of Gibraltar for everyone, supportive while not being intrusive. Daria was around at times but remained elusive.
There’s film of you doing a Q&A with Tim Lucas and Keith Emerson after a U.S. screening of Inferno, in which everybody appears to be having a great time. I’m a big fan of Emerson, I wondered if you could tell us anything about him…
Keith only showed up unexpectedly and very last minute. He’s a consummate prankster, a real ‘cut-up’. That night, I remember thinking how late the screening would be starting and considering not going at all. At twelve midnight there was a line going all the way around two sides of the block to see our film. So it was good I went, and as you say, everyone was having a blast… as if happy fairy were sprinkling dust on all of us.
I believe your dramatic training was very “Method” so it’s ironic that so many people remember you for this scene in which you’re floating around in a pool, looking beautiful, with no real idea of what’s going on…
Not so much “irony” as opportunity. I trained with Stella Adler, and she set my sights high. When given a gift, you do your utmost with whatever is set before you. Perhaps the reason people remember that scene is precisely because of my training. Having said that, beauty is a blessing, it gets you noticed, but it’s ones inner life that forms the character — and that’s what’s remembered. I love a challenge as much as any good actor, and after my success with Midnight Express I had idealistic views about what I should and shouldn’t do. I wanted to make films of quality, filmsthat inspired something honest and useful in the world. Sadly, the kind of projects on offer were more dull and less real than my own day to day existence. One morning while having breakfast with Walter Matthau, I asked his advice about a film that I’d been offered, but wasn’t keen about making. He said, “If it starts on Monday, it’s the best job for you. You’ve got to work. You’ve got to feed your family. That’s your job, it’s what you do”.
What’s your abiding memory of the Inferno shoot?
I took this film because I wanted to work with Dario. However, it was hard for me to take the film seriously because there wasn’t much of a script to work from. It was a frustration, not having a more fully drawn character I could sink my teeth into. I constantly had questions about my character that went unanswered. I showed up for hair and make-up, arrived at the set, would be told the situation and then improvise. My sense was that there was more attention paid to visuals than story content…
…or the actors.
You can be at the end of a long day, finally finding the performance you’d been reaching for in a difficult scene you and your director have been working on for hours, when suddenly a crew member screams, “FOOD BREAK!” No matter if it’s for lunch, dinner or a coffee break — Italians don’t care what your filming or how difficult or impossible it might be to grasp that magic moment again. They want their break and there is nothing that will stop them from having it. Not the promise of double or triple wages, not a sense of pride, for having worked on a film with such fine performances. Not anything! At times like those you have to let go and have faith that your muses will show loyalty to your cause and take up the slack that was lost.
Well I think they did, because that movie has a certain magic all its own…
I have always saved copies of the scripts for films I’ve done but didn’t bother to keep a copy of Inferno — it was more of a sketch of a idea than a detailed screenplay. I only knew that Inferno was meant to be a continuation of another film which I hadn’t seen, so I trusted that Dario would fill in the blanks with post production.
When did you realise, and how surprised were you by the realisation, that Inferno in particular and other of your early films have had an enduring life of their own and an ongoing cult following?
As I sit here in 2015, I never, in my wildest imagination, ever thought these films would continue to have a following. It’s surreal, and sweet too, in a way. Funnily enough, I’ve developed an appreciation for these films through their enduring popularity and my fans who make them so. I am grateful to them.
In 1986 you were back in Kenya for the “rampaging baboons” saga, In The Shadow Of Kilimanjaro… was it difficult, in view of your earlier experiences in that country?
Kenya is such an amazing place that just about any dangled carrot could lure me there. But filming “In the Shadow” was fraught with problems, not least of which was my having contraced malaria while there. There were problems with the baboons and the producers, who didn’t respect them or anyone else on that shoot. The work was so dangerous and miserable that we went through three film crews before it was completed. Looking back at what we all endured, it’s amazing some of us made it through that experience alive. My only good memories are of John Rhys-Davies, who was so warm and good-natured that, over dinner, he had a way of bringing all of us to tears with his jokes. His jokes and good-heart were my salvation on that shoot.
I was wondering about the handling of the baboons… I know that you’re concerned with animal welfare…
I was outraged about how the animals were treated on that particular film. This was through no fault of the actual trainers but out of haste and carelessness and basic lack of respect from the production folk up top. Any group working with animals who do not create an environment of love and respect for them has got a missing genome in their blueprint.
Charles Band has got his own independent set-up that works very well for him… I wondered how you found your working experience on Puppet Master?
I did that film to work with the director, David Schmoeller. He had some wonderful film projects (of a spiritual nature) that I’d hoped to work on with him later. Unfortunately, those films never got made.
That doesn’t surprise me, given that he was previously mentored by people like Bunuel and Jodorowsky…
To his credit, David Schmoeller was very generous. He’s a fine director who deserves to work much more than he has. Ironically, he only made Puppet Master with the idea that it would be a sounding board to make some of the other more sensitive and psychologically complex films that he’d written. We both made this film in hopes that we / he would be able to get these other dream projects off the ground.
In contrast to most of the other roles you’ve played, was it fun to play a “nasty piece of work” for once?
Playing different characters keeps things interesting. It’s what actors live for.
Is it difficult acting opposite puppets, animatronic creatures and stop motion creations that are only added to the picture after you’ve done your stuff?
Working with anything that isn’t human is perhaps one of the biggest of challenges for an actor.
Having acted for various and varying directors, what were the do’s and don’ts that you had picked up when you started your own directing career?
Always give actors a feeling of safety and respect, then set them free. Nothing is ever how you imagined it in advance, so be open to anything. Stay focused on your vision while remaining open to new ideas. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know, give me time to think about it” when the pressure is on. Everyone is equally important, no matter how small the job, so show your gratitude, on a daily basis.
Craig Clyde’s Walking Thunder (1997) concerns Pioneers and their interactions with Native Americans… I believe you can trace your ancestry back to pioneer days and that you have Osage Indian forebears?
Yes, there is an interesting story about the Osage which I’d love to make into a film. It is little known that In the 1920’s and 30’s they were some of the wealthiest people in America because the reservations they were forced to live on in Kansas and Oklahoma were so oil rich. Some of them built mansions while living in Teepees in their front lawns, some sent their kids to Europe for their educations. My story focuses on the unthinkable actions of some westerners to steal those land rights from the Osage by using eugenics as a form of ethnic cleansing and how this practice has continued.
Do you think your own multi-ethnic heritage made you pre-disposed to live and work in various parts of the world?
I doubt my DNA has anything to do with my personality traits. I can’t attribute my wanderlust to family influence either. I only know that I have always felt more at home with other cultures than with my own and that is perhaps what I love most about story telling, that ability to live in another shoes, heart and soul.
Your directorial debut Changeling aka Dawnland (2009) also deals with the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers… can you tell us something about what you’re trying to achieve with this film and the projected trilogy of which it forms a part?
There are so many films and stories floating around which portray Native Americans as vicious predators during the time of European settlement in America. I wanted to make something of educational value that tells the true story of European captives who, after living with Native tribes and then given a chance to return to their European families, often preferred to escape again, to be reunited with their Native families. This was especially true with females. Women are revered in Indian cultures. Their respect for nature, spiritual practices and traditions that honour the female was in stark comparison to Victorian practices and values. My intention was to correct those false impressions that have tarnished the Native American culture at large.
As a producer / director working with small budgets, we gather that you get very hands on with set design, costumes, make-up and so on…
I’ve worn a lot of ‘hats’ and enjoy that intense involvement. Low budget means creative freedom — a smaller budget does not necessarily mean we have to sacrifice production value. The old days of “The Hollywood System” are dead and we’re living in an exciting time when it comes to filmmaking. I love the direction in which television is going, where shows develop characters in depth. I’m thinking of Homeland, Mad Men, and The Vikings, Dig and many more. They are the new cinema.
Please tell us about Masters Of Disaster, the environmentalist film that you have in pre-production…
It’s a five part series, the first (and most pressing) part involves two Butane tanks in San Pedro, next to the Los Angeles Harbour. These tanks sit dangerously upon an earthquake fault line, are not protected and could destroy the people and economy of Los Angeles if they aren’t moved. In the UK, you experienced a sample of this kind of disaster with the Buncefield Explosion, but with these two tanks in the Los Angles harbour we’re talking about a potential explosion the size of 50 atomic bombs. The subject of other chapters to the series involve other important environmental issues in California.
What else can we expect from you? I know you’ve been developing a project about the Roman poet Ovid… did you ever see the Walerian Borowczyk film (The Art Of Love) on this subject?
I’m currently writing a screenplay to direct a film based on Jon Cole’s autobiography, called, Bangkok, Hard Time, to shoot in Thailand. I’m also passionate about getting my Ovid project off the ground and making plans for both films as we speak, in 3-D. I’ve not see the Borowczyk film, but will definitely check it out.
Well, he made some great films but that isn’t one of them so I’m looking forward to seeing your take on the subject. Irene, thanks once again for talking to us.
For more information on Irene and her various projects in development, visit http://www.dawnland-movie.com and to anyone who’s interested in the political circumstances that led to her hasty exit from Kenya, Irene recommends https://www.facebook.com/mwananchi/posts/3223100339128