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Home / Film / Interviews / From Hammer to Glamour to Tribal Los Angeles: Lesley-Anne Down Remembers Countess Dracula and Nomads

From Hammer to Glamour to Tribal Los Angeles: Lesley-Anne Down Remembers Countess Dracula and Nomads

The incredibly beautiful Lesley-Anne Down is the epitome of the reluctant movie star. She has featured in some of the most popular and influential films from England and the USA throughout her illustrious career and also has co-starred with some of the industry’s top craftsmen and women of varying genres, but the actress sees performance and the artistry of acting through a refreshingly nonchalant and extremely down-to-earth perspective. Down has since retired from show business and couldn’t be happier, but she has a great fondness and absolute admiration and love for the work she has been involved with, but more importantly for this gracious beauty are the friendships she picked up along the way and the memories she has acquired. Wonderful memories that she is more than happy to share with us, because now this candid and extremely honest lovely ex-movie star sits down and discusses her two excursions into the horror genre – Hammer’s Ingrid Pitt vehicle Countess Dracula (1971) where she played Ilona, the virtuous daughter of the bloodthirsty aristocrat who bathed in virgin blood to keep herself young and Nomads (1986), a mid-80s thriller co-starring Pierce Brosnan and directed by John McTiernan who went to great success with the action movie hit Die Hard (1988) and the sci-fi/monster movie Arnie smash Predator (1987).

Diabolique: Did you grow up watching the Hammer horror films?

LAD: Oh my God, of course. I did see a lot of them before I did a Hammer movie on television. I never actually went to the cinema to see them, because I seem to remember you had to be at least sixteen or something to go to the cinema to see them. What I remember mostly about them is the man going in and there are the two little bite marks from the girl’s neck, but for some reason or another they had to pull the blanket down further to where her boobs were at! I always remember going “Oh look, two bites, two boobs.” It was so weird. It was the sixties, and it was very much that sort of titillation, and do this and do that sort of stuff. But yes, I did see a lot of them. But the ones I recall mostly were the earlier ones, where there weren’t the two boobs and two bites on the neck. That sort of came in the sixties when I was doing them, but yes I mean, Peter Cushing and Chris Lee and those people, they were great. They were classic, were they not? And they still are. There was also Hazel Court! And although this lady never did any Hammer horror films, she was the quintessential English actress that you may remember – Kay Kendall. And then there was the model Margaret Lockwood, with the beauty spot. They were all very quintessential. But anyway, it is kind of interesting to what I was saying about the two bites on the neck and two boobs, because the “Hammer House of Horror” one that I did, Countess Dracula with darling Ingrid Pitt, a man called Peter Sasdy directed it. I was fifteen. I believe I was fifteen, or I may have been sixteen, I can’t remember. It depends on when it was actually made.

Diabolique: The first time we see you is when you are kidnapped from a carriage – do you remember that sequence?

LAD: Oh yes, and I remember there was a scene where the grotesque guy held me captive, and he locked me in a big old trunk or something. I just remember, they wanted the two boobs – he was to open up the trunk, rip my dress and out come my boobs! And I was just not going to have any of it. I remember Peter Sasdy walked me around the set, talking to me and talking to me, and what he said to me was one of the most pathetic things I have ever heard in my life. He said, “You know Lesley-Anne, if you are worried about future years, like your children seeing this and so forth, don’t be, because it is going to be so everywhere. Everybody shows their bodies. Bodies are nothing today. So you mustn’t worry about what people will think.” I remember looking at him and saying, “I am not worried about what people are going to think. I am worried about me, and what I think.” There was no way he was going to get me to do it. Absolutely no way at all. I remember in a movie I did about the same time called Assault (in the USA the title is In the Devil’s Garden) with Suzy Kendall I was raped consistently and I remember they wanted the rapist to rip my bra off. I said “I am not doing it!.” So, I had on two bras. And he ripped one bra off, and the camera zoomed up to my face, leaving me lying there with another bra on!

Diabolique: You have such a beautiful manner in the film – and there is a lot of dramatic stuff and arcs – what was it like to perform?

LAD: I think when you are that young you really don’t pay that much attention to it. I think I was so tired. I was talking to my cousin about this the other day. I have retired now. I don’t work. I have no inclination whatsoever to work. I have never been so happy and I have never really felt this relaxed, and I realised it was such a different world back then than how it is today. If I hadn’t been me, with the career that I had back then, I would have been treated differently. I remember when we shot Countess Dracula, I didn’t have a car to take me to work. So, I had to get up around four thirty in the morning, and I had to walk a mile and a half down to the train station by myself, where I got the train in the dark with only men, doing odd jobs. These were the only people you see at five in the morning getting a train to Waterloo and Victoria and then change trains to another train, which was not the tube, we used called the Up Train and Down Trainand get another train down to Shepparton. If it wasn’t Shepparton, then it was Pinewood Station, but I think it was Shepparton. I’d get that train to Shepparton then get a bus, go outside, get on the studio bus, which wasn’t really  a studio bus, it was a regular bus, but everybody called it the studio bus because it was always outside the train station, then get on that bus which drove to the bottom of a country road which is where the studios were. You would then get off the bus, and then you would walk a mile, up the country road to the studio. So, that was my day before I was put into costume and the wig, and all the rest of it. Of course, everybody else was all in cars. I made so many movies like thatit was unbelievable. I had been up for at least three hours. I was pretty much exhausted by the time I got to work, so being thrown into rivers and all the rest of it! 

Diabolique: The costuming is so beautiful – what was it like wearing those lovely dresses?

LAD: Those were the days when costumes were made! I mean you didn’t just go to the costume department and just pick something up off the shelf. They use to make those things, not everything, but a lot of things they use to make, and that never actually stopped happening, until really into the nineties. Then film started to change. I mean, I don’t remember a film I did where everything, every article of clothing. Now everything I wore in Countess Dracula was handmade for me. And that was the same for all of the Hammer horror movies. Everything was made. Even in The Great Night Train Robbery (1963) everything was made. Strangely, even the corset I wore which features in the beginning of the movie. That corset was made for me. But yes, the dresses in Countess Dracula were lovely, very well made and completely Hammer horror, you know all that extenuation of the bosom and such. You know, two bites, two boobs!

Diabolique: What was it like working with Sandor Eles and Patience Collier?

LAD: Patience was what her name implied. She was incredibly patient, and because she was so old school, she had all the etiquette in the world. She was super, super, super kind. Sandor, I just remember being in awe of. Because he was good looking to me, and he was an older man. He probably wasn’t very old. He was probably only about thirty or something like that. But to me he was an older man. I don’t fully remember anything about him, other than being in awe of him. But, I don’t think he was terribly friendly to me. I think he was friendly to other people. But actors can be selfish…maybe he had a different agenda. He wasn’t bad. He was pleasant enough, but it certainly wasn’t a close relationship.

Diabolique: And the legendary Ingrid Pitt. What was it like working with her?

LAD: You know I worked with Ingrid again? I campaigned to get the part and actually got it. It was a telemovie called Unity (1981) which was about Unity Mitford, who was one of the Mitford girls, and the Nazi part of the Mitford. Anyway, I got back to my friend, Andrew Berkley, who turned me onto the part and I researched it all and looked into all kinds of Nazi things. I so wanted to play Unity and did. Ingrid had the part of Fraulein Baum who had the girls finishing school in Munich. She was the woman who was in charge of all the girls at. I remember the scene we had together where she had to come into the room and say “Girls, you should be in bed and what are you doing up!”, and I remember I had to stand up and say and look at her and hate her and point at her, and I found it too difficult because I loved her so much. And even though I am an actress, I had to look at her and point my finger and say Juden sind hier nicht erwünscht, which means “Jews are not welcome here”. I was playing a Nazi. And I have to say that was perhaps one of the most, and it gives me goose-bumps thinking about it, but it was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do or say. Ingrid was wonderful. If you can ever get your hands on it, watch it. It is so interesting. So well written. It is such a brilliant piece of history. I remember talking to Ingrid when we were doing Countess Dracula She was charming. She was marvellous. She was extraordinary. And I just remember going “How. What”, because she was doing all those nude scenes in that film, and standing up and dripping in blood! And I just remember more than anything on the planet just thinking: “What a body…What an amazing body.” She was gorgeous and she wasn’t bashful, not like me – Miss timid. She was like this: Here I am, I am gorgeous! I remember talking to her about how she escaped World War II, and swam the river to flee the Nazis. She was a bigger than life and more than life human being, and I am glad I met her. When we did have scenes together, she was kind. She didn’t try to steal the scene or say “Oh, do this, and do that.” She was just helpful and kind, and very motherly. I remember I was a terrible actress. I didn’t understand or know anything about anything. I basically turned up and knew my lines and sort of spouted them somehow. If I was told to do something, I kind of did it. So, there was no brain behind anything.

Diabolique: Can you talk about From Beyond the Grave? What was that experience like?

LAD: I think by that time I didn’t go for interviews. By that time they either offered me something or they didn’t. I do remember From Beyond the Grave (1974) because I was seventeen when I did that film and I remember Kevin Connor directed itHe actually then directed me years later. Ian Bannen was lovely. You know with Ian, what you see on the screen, I think he is a saint, it is what you get in real life. There is no different side to Ian. He is just an extremely well-brought up, very chivalrous. He was exceptionally sweet and nice. It was a lovely job to do. But, do you remember the gentleman who played the ghost? I have a real problem with being picked up. I don’t like it at all. Even though in those days, I was probably only a hundred and ten pounds. I didn’t want to be carried around. I hated it. He had a bad back. You know, he was in his sixties and duh, duh, duh. It’s filming and it is not what you would see on screen. It is not like “Okay, he carries her from A to B”, and fifteen seconds later it’s done. It’s not how it works in the film. You are probably going to have in fifteen seconds somebody up and down, up and down for like two hours. Then another angle, rehearsals. He had to have a plank put on his back and taped to himself under his costume, so his back wouldn’t go! That part was horrible!

Diabolique: How did Nomads come about? 

LAD: Those were the days following a lot of things. Perhaps I should have taken a different route, but I wanted to be an actress, had to be a model, and had to be an actress. If you wanted to be an actress, you didn’t do things that weren’t acty type things. So, I had been offered a couple of films which I turned down. I had been offered the Estee Lauder girl for five years then when my private life took over, veered to the right and I married William Friedkin. I had a friend back in England by the name of Elliott Kastner who I had made friends with because he had produced the Stephen Sondheim musical I had done called A Little Night Music (1973). I knew Elliot very well and would go to his house and was friends with Tessa his wife, the kids one of them being his stepson, a very young Cary Elwes. One night Elliot called me up and said “Lesley, can we have lunch? I have a favour to ask”. So I had lunch with him. He said, “Look, there is a new director – John McTiernan. He has no idea what he is doing. He said, “I am producing this low-budget feature with him and would you do it?” He told me, “Look, it is two weeks work and I will give you a quarter of a million dollars.” I said, “Thank you very much. I will take it.” I came back to LA, and I took the job. I actually went to meet John and talk to him about the part before I started. They started shooting right away. He was exceptionally hostile towards me, because, as I discovered (he was a very strong personality, obviously, he went on to do some rather good things), but he didn’t want me at all. He didn’t want me anywhere near that film. He wanted sort of some blonde – he wanted to go more Hitchcockian, and have some blonde, Yankee whatever. Which is fine, I can totally see where he was coming from. But John was unfortunately lumbered with me. So, he slightly warmed towards me as the film went on. And then we went over budget. We only had like a week or so to go. We had gone over budget, and I remember sitting there – we were forming a scene in the bedroom, and I said “You know what? I will put up half of my salary to get the movie finished”. He looked at me and said – “You’d do that?” I said, “Yeah, I’d do it. I don’t care. You know, I think it’s interesting, and you’re young.” By that time in my life, honestly, I kind of felt old. Certain people might have been older than me. I can tell you I felt old. I am an old soul, and I have never gone in the way that people have thought that I would go, or should do. I have made sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect decisions, but they have always been based on something that is good, in my interior, in my heart. Anyway, as it turned outno, Elliot was pulling one of Elliot’s very good producer things, and he stepped up to the plate and said to me, “You don’t need to do this Lesley, but thank you, and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh and I got it under control.” But John then…it was an interesting situation because the girl in the film, Anna Maria Monticelli. She changed it a couple of times. That was not her name – it was something else. She was Australian. She was a very nice girl. She ended up having an affair with John. And while she was having an affair with John, John was up at my house –well actually it wasn’t my house, it was Bill’s house, because I was married to him. But, you know, it was his house, I had just happened to have married him. And John was up at my house, having this huge, long conversation about his unhappiness with certain things that were to do with the movie, and then he leapt on me! And needless to say I didn’t! I wouldn’t! All I knew what I had to get out of there! So here is this director, you know buffing the other actress and trying to buff me! And he didn’t want me in the fucking film to begin with! Then he gets her up the sprout, and she has a babyand then I don’t know what happened after that. I heard through her that he didn’t behave badly, or he did behave badly, and didn’t want anything to do with the kid, and then he got hugely successful.

Diabolique: What was it like working with Pierce Brosnan? Were you similar actors in your methods?

LAD: The first time that Pierce was on the set I go, “Hello, Hello.” Of course, Pierce and I are the same age, give or take a month here or there, also, he went to his boy’s school and I went to Mayfield Girls, which are literally half a mile from each other in London. He was in the production of Busy Liar (that I went over to and was one of the dancers. We probably did know each other somehow, but we never paid any attention to each other when we were eleven. But Pierce is easy. He is a good actor. He’s a nice guy. He’s Irish, what can you say?

Diabolique: What did you think of the script for Nomads when you first read it? 

LAD:  Well at the same time we were making this, Bill was working on To Live and Die in LA (1985). He was doing the script and fiddling about on the script. Years ago, I wouldn’t have said anything, but I do remember lying in bed with him and saying “Hmmm, do this and do that”, and whole tons of ideas came out of my mouth. Yes, I do remember To Live and Die in LA very well. I have been integral in the writing of a lot of things, believe me. I have been very much involved in the writing and in the construction of many, many films but I am not going to go there.

Diabolique: What did you think of Nomads when you first saw it? 

LAD: I never saw dailies. I thought some of it was very good, and I thought some of it was really plainly fucking stupid. Even when I saw it, I thought some of it was so fucking stupid, you know? I think, had he gone for more supernatural or ghostly situation, and not so much of here are these people that do this, I think it would have been a better film. But making it all a “reality” didn’t work. He should have made it a straight-up supernatural horror film, then the film would have been good. It started off with that supernatural element, but it didn’t go anywhere with it. But, you know, maybe it was money? I don’t know. Whatever it was, it didn’t go anywhere with it. I think the choice was incorrect. We never really met those “people”. When you actually look at the screen they weren’t there. All I remember is the night that I was there I might have met them actually. But even if I met them, it was so brief because they were always doing their crap, and I was there doing my crap, kind of the two never met. Really, I don’t remember. But, all I really remember about, with all that stuff going on at the house, and they were all attacking the house. That all took a week, and it was night shooting. We were shooting in the Palisades, and it was horrendous because the sound guy kept going “We can’t, we can’t,” because Beverly Hills Cop (1984) with Eddie Murphy, was shooting five doors down. In that outside sequence, in that big house where they open fire – just gun, after gun, after gun, people dying. It was just right there shootingIt was pretty insane.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called “Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books – one on the Stephen King adaptation “Cujo” entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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