As a teenage acting student at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Joan Collins longed to play the role of Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives, while other girls coveted such roles as Ophelia and Juliet. But the closest she could get to Amanda was the role of the French maid in a RADA production. Now she's getting her wish... on Broadway.
In the interim, as virtually everyone knows, her internationally publicized life has not exactly been boring. She has had a career in movies, the media has widely chronicled her marriages and romances, magazines have flaunted her on their covers, she has had the nerve to pose revealingly for Playboy at 50, she has written her autobiography as well as two novels and other books, and she has found time to appear on the stage in England.
Above all she is famous as the sex scheming Alexis on television's Dynasty, which ran for nearly eight years.
After six months of playing Amanda to sold-out houses in London, Collins headed for the United States to make her stage debut on this side of the Atlantic, she opens on Broadway in Private Lives on February 20 at the Broadhurst Theatre, but as a prelude she has been living and breathing Amanda on a grueling road tour. Amanda in Denver. Amanda in Houston. By the time she is finished she will also have played Sacramento; Phoenix. Seattle; San Francisco; Los Angeles:' Miami; Washington, D.C.; and Pittsburgh.
As they applaud Collins's entrance, Broadway audiences will inevitably be giving her the once-over. How does she look at 58? What is she wearing? How does she compare with Alexis?
Does the actress worry about whether audiences link the Joan Collins they know from Dynasty with her performance onstage?
"God, no, not for one second does it cross my mind," she insists. "When I’m doing one part, I never even dream of another part." But she's also quick to point out that theatre is where she started before the movies and television beckoned.
"I made my debut in the English theatre when I was nine playing one of Nora's sons in A Doll's House," she reminisces. Joan Collins playing a boy? She laughs. “At nine you can do that." The actress comes from a show business family. Her grandmother, Henrietta Collins, was a dancer who taught young Joan high kicks and splits. Her father, Joe Collins, was a well-known agent in Britain.
"My first big role in the theatre, I suppose, was The Skin of Our Teeth, the Thornton Wilder play. I did that when I was 18 or 19 in London, and I got wonderful reviews, so I didn’t feel I had to prove anything. But there are always going to be people who, if you’ve ever appeared on a television screen or a movie screen, are going to consider that you’re not a theatre actor.”
British actor Simon Jones, who plays Elyot opposite Collins’s Amanda, had never worked with her before in either films, television, or theatre and didn’t know what to expect when rehearsals began. (For the uninitiated who have never seen Coward’s play, Elyot and Amanda, who are divorced from each other, accidentally meet on adjacent hotel balconies in Deauville while honeymooning with their new spouses, only to discover that they are still madly in love.) Jones was immediately impressed to find that “she’s totally accessible and likes things to be done as they should be. I find that very comforting.”
Jones dismisses as “simple sexism” any impression “by legend or tabloid press” that Collins is difficult to work with. He recognizes her as a good businesswoman, someone who knows what she wants and gets it.
Others in the current production’s cast include Jill Tasker, Margie Rynn and Edward Duke. Arvin Brown is directing. Collins promises “dazzling sets and costumes,” with the scenery by Loren Sherman and the costumes by William Ivey Long. Private Lives is being produced by Charles H. Duggan is association with the Pace Theatrical Group.
Now that Collins finally has the part she’s coveted, what exactly is she trying to do with her Amanda?
“I’d say that what I want to bring to it, particularly for American audiences, is a sense of reality. You must believe that the character is a real person and not a brittle cardboard cutout. The lines are very frivolous, although there’s a great kernel of truth in many of them. Amanda is an incurable romantic and extremely mischievous and has a great feminist approach to life. She believes that women are as free and equal as men, and I think that for something written in the thirties that is a kind of avant-garde attitude.”
She dismisses any thought that she might get tired of doing the same part night after night with a very definite “No, no. It’s not just me and the four other actors. It’s me and the four other actors and the audience, the other entity. It’s very important that the audience is part of what I’m doing and that they enjoy it. When you do films, the audience doesn't exist. You don’t think of the audience. You think of the director—he’s your audience. That’s who you want to please.”
Collins, who has three children of her own and also was stepmother to three others (“they’re grown up now”), calls herself “tri-coastal,” enjoying homes in California, the South of France, and London. She has voracious appetite for work projects. In addition to her books, which include a beauty book, another about her daughter Katy’s fight for life after an auto accident, her autobiography Past Imperfect, her novel Prime Time and her new novel Love & Desire & Hate, she has produced a movie from her sister Jackie’s novel The Stud and a number of her own TV shows, including a BBC series of Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. She has also been commercially involved in lending her name to perfume, jewelry and eyewear.
What is it Joan Collins has learned from her experience in work and if life? “I think acting is one of the most disciplined of professions,” she replies. “It is extremely necessary to be in total control of yourself. My philosophy about life, to capsulize, is that I think it’s a gift, and one should appreciate it. And if you are doing something you love, then you are doubly blessed and should adore it. I’m very appreciative of what has happened to me in my life. I enjoy everything I do.”