Joan Collins: 'The men were predatory when I was a young actress'
Dame Joan Collins is trooping around the supermarket looking for bargains. She is dressed in, as she puts it, “the world’s most hideous wig”, a shapeless old mac, and – dear God – grey socks stuffed into her loafers. It’s a bit of a shock for anyone more used to La Collins, one of the UK’s most enduringly glamorous actresses, appearing in Hello! magazine dressed in a cocktail frock, big jewels and high heels.
But this is Collins as we’ve rarely seen her: a broken woman, about to have her hip done on the NHS.
It is, of course, an alternate reality. Joan is playing Helen, a faded star fallen on hard times in the new British road movie Time of Their Lives. The film, which co-stars Pauline Collins and Franco Nero, is a little bit Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and quite a lot Thelma and Louise: The Saga Years.
After I turned down Richard Burton he wouldn’t hang out with me at all
And she is clearly relishing the chance to get into character: that wig is topped with a plastic rain hood and she is walking with a stick.
But far from having settled into comfy slippers and an elasticated waistband in real life, today an off-duty Collins is dressed in exactly the sort of tight dark jeans, baseball cap and huge sunglasses that fans would hope for. Nibbling at a croissant and jam, sipping coffee, the actress, an impossible-to-believe 83 years old, exudes the sort of sheen and determination that only come with years of glossing, grooming and working. Always working.
Famously Collins began life as child actress, becoming a Fifties film starlet and Hollywood stalwart – including a stint as sex symbol de jour with her performance in The Stud. Her crowning triumph was the Eighties TV megahit Dynasty, in which she played Alexis Carrington Colby - and which she is soon hoping to re-join for a 21st century boxset-style makeover.
In recent years, she has appeared on stage in London, guest-starred in numerous TV series, regularly tours a one-woman show, and has written 18 books - six of them the sort of racy romps pioneered by her sister, the late Jackie Collins.
Her reputation has always been something of man-eater, but also a man’s woman. Her catfights with rival Krystle in Dynasty - including one memorable spat in the lily pond - are the stuff of small screen legend.
Even in Time of Their Lives, she is constantly putting down Pauline Collins. So does Joan have any gal pals? “Of course,” she says, with a steely glare. “My two best friends are both called Judy, and date from way back when I went to Hollywood at 21.
“Judy Balaban’s father ran Paramount and she was just so knowledgeable about everything: menus and flowers and dressing. She is still my friend and whenever I’m in LA, we text each other.
I’ve been told my shoulders are too wide, and my lips too red. You get used to it
“The other is Judy Seale - a nice English girl from Golders Green. We became friends when we met through my second husband Anthony Newley, and stayed as close as we can be. Then there’s Evie” – wife of legendary composer and lyricist Leslie Bricusse – “she’s another one of my closest friends. People talk about ‘a woman’s woman’ and ‘a man’s woman’ - but I don’t differentiate.”
She continues. “You hide yourself in a character. I’m not like Alexis but everybody still thinks of me like that - so I must have done a pretty good job.”
When she does get on to the subject of men, she is actually not that warm.
“After I turned down Richard Burton” - the pair were making Sea Wife in 1957 - “he wouldn’t hang out with me at all. This was an era of film making when quite a few leading men deemed it their divine right to sleep with the young actresses.”
Who else did she reject?
“George Peppard, Gene Barry, Richard Todd. Peppard wouldn’t speak to me at all afterwards. It was sad. A lot of men were predatory. It was the studio system. It wasn’t just me but every pretty girl - and a lot of them succumbed.”
Collins has married five times – most enduringly to 51-year-old Percy Gibson and the couple will celebrate their 15th anniversary in February next year. She has three children and three grandchildren, and admits that they are her only source of concern in life.
“I never particularly care about what people think. My main worries have been around my children. Always have been and always will.”
She has, however, faced her fair share of criticism. When Collins first arrived in Hollywood she was handed a box of amphetamine tablets and told to take them so she could lose weight. “I’ve been told my shoulders are too wide, and my lips too red. You get used to it.” She shrugs.
“I do not Google myself ever. I am on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook because it’s quite fun. But I don’t take any notice of criticism. I haven’t had any trolls – well, nothing specifically damaging.”
She is not convinced however that such constant publicity is healthy. “People get so overexposed on social media it is ludicrous. It must be hell to be a young actress today.
“But you don’t have to do it. This barrage of selfies is so utterly narcissistic - and to be that narcissistic takes away from being a good actor.”
She adds: “People think being an actor is a glam profession and you’re swanning around in couture frocks. But that is the teeny cherry on the top. Actresses like Nicole Kidman work their butts off doing really good work. It is not an easy profession but it is very rewarding, a real vocation.
“Even if you are brought up in a council house - if you care about wanting to be an actor, you will join an am-dram society or you will go and form a group doing Shakespeare.”
Her concerns around social media haven’t stopped her tweeting a few pictures from the set of Time of Their Lives; she has enjoyed working with Pauline Collins noting they first met in 1980 on Tales of the Unexpected, when they played rival actresses (with Joan, as ever, in the more glamorous role).
“All the people you work with - you rarely form lasting relationships, but she came to my party at Claridge’s to celebrate my damehood in 2015.”
With so much accomplished, would she ever retire? “Why would I?” she shoots back.
Is there anyone she would still like to work with? “Tom Hooper,” she says. “And Woody Allen. I have loved all his films.
“I met him 30 years ago you know. I had read an article in Esquire that talked about his shyness and so when I saw him at a party I went over to him and said: ‘Mr Allen, I admire you and I identify with you about shyness. I’m shy too.’
“And he looked at my cleavage, in my low-cut dress, and replied, ‘you could have fooled me’.”
Time of Their Lives opens in UK cinemas on March 10.