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Romeo and Juliet's Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting reunite

  • Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles

Romeo and Juliet - Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting - reunited for an onstage Q&A for the first time ever at a screening of the new '4k' restoration of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles on 6 Dec.

The screening and Q&A, one of the final Shakespeare Lives on Film events presented by the British Council and the British Film Institute, took place in association with the American Cinematheque, Paramount Pictures and the GREAT Campaign.

Amongst hundreds of teenagers auditioning for the roles in London, Zeffirelli quickly paired the two young stars up – Hussey, who was just 15 then, recalled, “Franco paired us off together right from the get-go. We didn’t do it with anyone else. He said 'Leonard and Olivia, you two together…' it was all very exciting as I remember.”

She continued, “It didn’t really hit us how big it was; it started out to be a television special for the BBC. And then Paramount heard about it  and before we knew it, it became this big Paramount picture. So it was very overwhelming.”

Whiting remembered trying to impress the great Italian director Zeffirelli. “I wanted to make a good impression because I’d actually realised that this was going to be quite big. And I said [in Cockney voice] “Hello Mr. Zeffirelli, I heard that you do lots of opera like and what I thought would be really nice if we get on very well and everything.” He turned to one his assistants and said “How can he speak Shakespeare’s beautiful iambic pentameter when he can't even speak English?!”  He sent Whiting to voice training for six months to break him of that Cockney accent, and later did the same for Hussey to remove traces of her Argentine roots.

The two remembered the instant chemistry when they were young teenagers, she just 15 while he was 17. “I was excited when I saw her for the first time actually…so beautiful!,” said Whiting. Hussey teased her former boyfriend,  "You weren’t so bad you know!”

Hussey also remembered the nude scene but joked it hadn’t seemed as stressful for her co-star – “He was strutting around the set, not shy at all.”

Hussey said she was surprised that the scene was to be shot with her nude, instead of wearing flesh-coloured undergarments. “The makeup guy came into my dressing room that morning. He said, ‘Franco said I have to make you up from head to toe.’ I said, ‘what do you mean from head to toe!?’ I said, ‘I have to talk to Franco!’ Franco talked very gently: the way he talked when he wanted something…He said, ‘It’s their first passionate night together, how would it look if they were fully dressed? Would people feel anything, feel the passion?’ I said, ‘Oh, I suppose not’….after about 10 minutes we didn’t notice [the nudity],” she recalled.

Whiting also shared special memories of shooting the fight scene with Michael York as Tybalt.  “It’s all very choreographed. It’s putting it all together and remembering it which is the real problem. And it was about 37 movements I think. So we had to do this wide shot, and we got up to the 36th/37th movement, and I looked at Michael, and Michael looked at me and I sort of said under my breath, ‘We’re all out of moves now, what are we gonna do?!’ We tried, without choreographing it, and we both ended up with terribly, terribly cut hands, dripping with blood and stuff. But we liked it, because we thought it was almost like a street brawl, and I think that worked nicely.”

They both had great memories of working with their great director. Hussey said, “Franco is one of a kind. He’s absolutely genius and sometimes he’s very moody. He’s hell to work with. But when you’ve finished working with him, there’s nobody else that you can ever work with – at least for me – that makes you feel alive like that…He was genius, but always full of life, very lovable.”

Whiting agreed, “The interesting thing is that if you said to him, which film director has inspired you the most, he wouldn’t say Pasolini or Antonioni, or De Sica, he would actually equate himself as being probably of the same tradition as the great renaissance painters of Italy… Franco’s not worried or shy about projecting something that is beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, and I think that was one of the inspirations he had behind this movie".

Whiting continued, “It was the time that things were changing: the ‘60s - peace and love and all that kind of stuff. And we became sort of icons of the time. Madam looking beautiful with her very, very long hair, and me sort of sniggering on behind. I don’t think that we could have actually matched this experience with anything else, could we?"

Hussey said the production was a magical moment in her life. “It was a perfect moment in time, with a perfect cast. Franco never over directed. He figured, ‘Well, I’ve cast the perfect person to do their job, I’m going to let them do their job.’ He said, ‘Darling, do whatever you feel, you know where the camera is, and I’ll steer you if I see something that isn’t working.’”

The film famously cut out some of Shakespeare’s version, including leaving Rosalind and Paris on the cutting room floor. “ Hussey recalled, “He said, I know I’m going to annoy all the English Shakespearian buffs, but we’ve got to get rid of a lot of stuff because the whole point is to get across the passion, so that 50 years from now young people can see it and still feel the same passion. They don’t want to bogged down with a tonne of dialogue, let’s keep it alive and make it young.”

She remembered some tough reviews when the film first opened in 1968, but knows how beloved it is today – as evidenced by the huge crowd at the Aero. “People still love it. It’s shown in high schools all over the world. We get fan mail from 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds, so it’s doing something right. “

Hussey ended the Q&A with her advice to young lovers everywhere:  “Have fun!”