For a cheering example of progress, you need look no further than at the roles currently bookending Jane Seymour’s career. In the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die, she played a character so useless that she makes most of the other Bond girls look like accomplished world leaders. And now here she is, at the age of 71, reinventing herself as “an action hero”, she says with a laugh. “Chasing bad guys with a stun gun and a sense of humour.”
Seymour plays Harry Wild, the title character of a crime drama – “it’s soft crime”, she says, by way of explaining its cosy tone – that was written for her. It’s not exactly Line of Duty, but it is charming and Seymour is great as an English literature professor who retires and becomes an accidental sleuth. If, as I am, you are tired of cliched detectives with disastrous personal lives and a drink problem, Harry – it’s short for Harriet – is the antidote: fun, spirited and accompanied by a teenage sidekick.
“She lives life according to what suits her,” says Seymour. “I think she’s the kind of woman a lot of women would secretly like to be.” We speak over Zoom – Seymour is at home in Malibu, in what looks like her office, a businesslike bookcase behind her. At this time of her life, she says, “I’ve been offered more work than I’ve ever been.” As well as Harry Wild, she plays a grandmother living with dementia in the Australian film Ruby’s Choice. She has signed up to do two other films, and – with her partner, David Green, a producer – hopes to produce and star in another. In recent years, she appeared in the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama The Kominsky Method, and the second season of the US sitcom B Positive. “So yes, I’m busy,” she says.
What is going on? Is the old story that roles for women dry up once they hit a certain age no longer true? “It’s 40, actually,” says Seymour. “Clearly, they open up again when you’re 70. I think what’s really happened is there’s a huge generation of baby boomers saying, ‘My life is way more interesting and complicated than the life of an 18-year-old.’ I think it occurred to people that there is a major audience out there for material that includes people who are older.”
Seymour was in her 40s when she played Michaela Quinn, AKA Dr Mike, in the hugely successful TV series Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, though it wasn’t exactly billed as the role of a lifetime. “It’ll never be a series,” she remembers being told after signing on for the pilot. “It’s a woman in the lead – that doesn’t work. It’s a western, a period piece, and it’s women and children and animals, and morality.” Nobody would be interested, apparently, but it was a massive hit, and the show, says Seymour “saved my life”. On the brink of bankruptcy, she had taken the job out of desperation – her agent had rung around, saying Seymour would do pretty much anything. Her third husband, the father of her first two children, was also her business manager – and not only had he had an affair, he’d lost all her money.
As a child, with the less glamorous name Joyce Frankenberg, she wanted to be a ballerina. She grew up in south London, where her father was a doctor and her mother had been a nurse. Both had been through extraordinary, traumatic experiences – her father, whose Jewish father had escaped the pogroms in eastern Europe as a teenager, was in the RAF during the second world war. Seymour says he was among those who liberated Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where some of his own relatives had been murdered. Her mother, who was Dutch, had been in Indonesia when the war broke out, and was interned in a Japanese camp. In London after the war, they had three daughters – Seymour is the eldest – and managed to create a happy family life.
If Seymour’s home life was stable and loving, her school life was less so. She was a shy and diligent pupil who was bullied. During one production, a pantomime where Seymour was in the chorus but also understudy to the lead, she had a memory book, which the other cast members wrote messages in. “Some of them are so mean, like: ‘You think one day you’re going to be a big star but you’re never going to get another job.’ And: ‘I hope everything nasty happens to you in life.’” She laughs again. “It’s not just me saying I was bullied – I actually have visible evidence of it. You know what I think? You have two ways to go. One is you quit, and the other is you just decide to get on with it, and do it because you love it. It was a little bit lonely. I had a couple of best friends, one in particular who’s still my best friend – you only need one really good friend. And I had my sisters and my parents who were lovely.”
Around the same time, an injury ended Seymour’s dreams of being a dancer, but she moved into drama. She got a part in the chorus on Richard Attenborough’s film Oh! What a Lovely War, and an agent spotted her. It didn’t matter that she had been turned down by all the big drama schools – her career had started. She had done some small roles and was 20 when she got the part in Live and Let Die. She was married by then, to Attenborough’s son, Michael; Richard sent a letter to Roger Moore, playing Bond, asking him to look after his daughter-in-law (it sounds like it contained more than a hint of a warning). “He kept waving this letter at me,” Seymour remembers. Moore and his then wife did look after her, she says. “They knew I was completely out of my comfort zone. I don’t think I’d ever stayed in a hotel in my life, and certainly not been to restaurants. I was there on my own and it was hard to figure it all out.”
What was it like to be suddenly part of the Bond machine? “It was quite frightening,” she says. “Before I even started, they had Terry O’Neill taking these crazy beautiful photographs of me with very little on and doing an interview about how I liked to run naked through long grass.” It was all made up. Did she mind being called a Bond girl? “At the time, coming from obscurity, it was a very nice thing. It meant I had a job,” she says. But for all the doors it opened, it also slammed some shut. The acclaimed director John Schlesinger wanted to offer her a role, until someone told him, says Seymour, that she was “a Bond girl. And that was it. Never heard from them again. That happened a few times.” (She had wanted to do Ibsen, but instead she embraced a commercial career, from TV movies to Playboy shoots, and designing products including jewellery, scarves and home decor.)
Live and Let Die has not aged well – it’s sexist, obviously, but the racism is shocking. “You’d never make that movie now,” says Seymour. “You wouldn’t want to make that movie. I was a woman, a virgin, who ran three paces behind a man with a gun, wearing very … well, actually for a Bond girl, a lot. I was deflowered and then deposited. I’d lost all my power, so I was useless. It was awful!”
Years before the #MeToo movement geared up, Seymour wrote about her experience of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. In her early 20s, shortly after she had arrived in the US, a producer asked her to go to his house to watch a screen test she had done; she was told there would be other people there, but he was alone. “He told me I was going to star in this movie, and he’d told everyone how great I was, and now it was my turn. He said: ‘You know what you’ve got to do, don’t you?’” She asked him to call her a cab. “He threatened me and said that he would make sure that I never worked again as an actress if I ever told anyone.” The next day, she told her agents she hadn’t gone to his house. “They went: ‘Thank God for that.’”
Did it feel normal in the industry? “I didn’t know. I’d never spoken to anyone about it.” She was so shaken by it that she came back to the UK, where she married for a second time, and stopped acting for a while. Later, back in the US and starting her career again, “I looked around at a lot of my friends and my fellow actresses – choices were made,” she says of the position many women were put in. “It was never my choice. Who knows, I might have had a better career.” Is she shocked it was allowed to happen, that it took so long for it to be exposed? “It happens in every business. It’s not just Hollywood – it’s every career where there is a woman, and a man has seniority.”
She has seen the business change in other ways for women – in the early 80s, Seymour says she was fired from the Broadway production of Amadeus because she announced she was pregnant. Later, when she was pregnant with twins and working on Dr Quinn, her pregnancy was written into the storyline.
Seymour has four children (and now grandchildren), from her third and fourth marriages, and is close to her two stepchildren. She has managed to remain friends with her ex-husbands (there are four) and their wives and ex-wives. Exes come to her premieres, or to stay; just recently, the ex-wife of her current partner came to visit. She tells of how she and her first two husbands regularly get together. She has said that all four of her exes left her for other women. How did she move past that? “I just think that when you love someone, especially when you’ve also had children and experiences, if you can remember the good stuff, then with the pain, the bitterness, the betrayal and all the other stuff, you somehow have to process it and move forward.”
What has she learned about marriage? “That I don’t feel the need to be married any more,” she says with a laugh. “Marriage, like James Bond films, was different back in the day. When my parents got married, people married for life and they lived with whatever it was. Nobody that I knew, usually, had sex before they were married. So you married pretty much the first boyfriend you had. And so I did – I married my first boyfriend.”
She says she was so young that she doesn’t “really count” her first two marriages. “I count David Flynn as marriage – I was with him for 10 years, we had two children. What did I learn from that? I learned that absence makes the heart wander.” She laughs. “Not mine, but his. It wandered a lot.” Her fourth marriage, to the actor James Keach, lasted “for twentysomething years, and I thought that was it for ever, and I was devastated …” Keach had an affair. “I think what I’m really proud of is that I’ve always managed to be my own person, I’ve always made my own money, I’ve always taken care of myself. And my kids came out great.”
Seymour has written self-help books, partly of her own experiences. “I’m not trying to preach anything to anyone, but people ask me how I’ve managed to move on. You have to learn to accept and forgive yourself and others, and then move forward and don’t live in the past or the blame game. I feel very good that my children’s family – past, present and future – we can all be together.”
She thinks the example came from her mother, Mieke, who experienced extreme hardship. Mieke never talked to Seymour and her sisters about what she had gone through during the war. It was only as an adult, when Seymour and one of her sisters accompanied her to Indonesia, and tracked down the camp where she was imprisoned, that Seymour had any understanding of what she had experienced – the ants and snakes they would catch and cook to supplement their tiny rations, the people she nursed through illness, many of them dying from dysentery.
As a child, Seymour knew her mother had been in a camp but nothing more. Mieke “just cut off the war. The end, a new life.” But theirs was also an open house, says Seymour, and her parents were generous to anyone who needed help. She learned from her mother that if you can accept the past “however unacceptable it is, open your heart and reach out to help someone else, you don’t have to look far to find someone worse off than you. And when you do that, you have purpose. She reckoned that if you have purpose in your life, you can survive. That became my philosophy and very much how I’ve weathered the storms of life, and I’ve been battered a few times. But we all have.”
It’s about being able to let go of one idea of something and being “open-minded and open-hearted to receive something different”, she says, sounding pretty California, but also very right.