Olivia Hussey was just fifteen when Franco Zeffirelli cast her in Romeo and Juliet. When the film was released in October 1968, it catapulted Hussey and Leonard Whiting, the young actor playing Romeo, to global stardom.
For many Shakespeare lovers, Zeffirelli’s film is still the definitive film adaptation of the play. Fifty years after the movie’s release, Hussey’s memoir, The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life After Romeo and Juliet, tells the story of the actress’s life before, during, and after Romeo and Juliet. The excerpt below is from the chapter “Romeo and Juliet Go to the Movies.”
⇒ Listen to an interview with Hussey on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.
My dear mum, who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much, who had bundled up her two kids and left everything she had ever known for the promise of something better, was standing in the kitchen of our little house washing dishes when I told her I had just landed the part of Juliet.
“Oh, Livi,” was all she said.
She took my hand and held it. We stood in silence for a long time. She was crying. I like to think that at that moment my mum felt that it had all been worth it. And that she was proud. There have been few moments in my life that have given me as much joy.
One of the conditions of getting the part was that I couldn’t tell anyone I had it. Paramount Pictures was in the middle of negotiations to acquire the rights to the movie and wanted nothing leaked. So, whether it was in the dressing room above the Brodie stage, surrounded by all the girls who asked how my audition had gone—“Fine, I guess”—or with my friends down at the pub, I had to hold my tongue. No easy feat for a fifteen-year-old girl who felt as if she had just been crowned queen of the world.
A week or two after I had gotten the news, the intercom at the theatre where I was performing Brodie crackled out a call for me, “Miss Hussey, please come down to the backstage door.” I rushed down the five flights of stairs and flung open the exit door behind the theatre.
Franco was standing in a pool of light. He was wearing an enormous fur-lined coat, with a cigarette hanging casually from his lips. Beside him stood a man who looked like a boxer who didn’t mind losing: light brown hair brushed across a huge head; wide, thickset shoulders with what looked like a couple of sledgehammers hanging from them. But his smile was open, jolly, and without a trace of malice.
“Darling, I want you to meet Dyson Lovell,” Franco said. “Now I want you and your Romeo to work with Dyson for a few weeks.” And off Franco went, strolling into the night.
Dyson was a great friend of Franco’s and would go on to produce his own films as well as work with Franco on multiple projects. His job now, though, was to work with Franco’s two leads. Six hours a day, seven days a week he was to take us through Shakespeare’s world: meaning and language, accents and rhythm, the monologues with their dreaded iambic pentameter.
The following Monday, I made my way to Dean Street— Franco had kept the loft space for rehearsals. Walking in, I saw Leonard. He had gotten the part—he was Romeo. I hadn’t seen him for about a month. He gave me a timid hug and, smiling, said,
“Juliet, wherefore art thou, Juliet?”
His confident cockney accent always made me laugh, and his sweet humor banished all awkwardness. I was so happy it was him and that we would be working together. And work we did.
Dyson was a taskmaster. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. We began by going through the whole text word by word and then, when we were done, we went through it again. We met with dialect coaches and voice teachers. We analyzed each scene. Always the emphasis was on the emotion: What are the characters feeling? How does that feeling inform their actions? Franco’s simple instruction while he was gone was never to put technique before emotion. He had taken a risk in casting two age-appropriate actors for the roles; we were desperately inexperienced. But what we did have, in spades, was raw adolescent feeling—and that, I think, was what Franco was counting on.
Leonard struggled with his cockney, and I struggled with my shyness. We struggled together. It brought us closer, and I think that was also part of Franco’s plan. Laughing and smoking cigarettes, Leonard and I came to know the text as well as each other.
One Sunday afternoon we decided to go see Franco’s Taming of the Shrew, which had just been released in England. Its two stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were, of course, household names. Their love affair had become the stuff of modern legend, and details of their lives were splashed across tabloids all over the world. (Years later, I would meet both, and believe me, they were indeed larger than life—more on them later.)
Leonard and I sat in the dark cinema. The movie began, and almost instantly we were overwhelmed. It just seemed so huge, so grand, packed with color and music—like all Zeffirelli’s work, it was gorgeous to look at and listen to. Franco had come out of the Italian Opera and knew exactly how to fill the screen with sweeping pageantry and spectacle.
“What have I gotten myself into?” I thought.
Leonard took hold of my hand; his was as cold and clammy as mine. “Oh my God, Olivia,” he said.
“Leonard,” I said, “I think this is going to be a big deal.”
From THE GIRL ON THE BALCONY by Olivia Hussey. Excerpted with permission from Kensington Books, copyright 2018.