Actress Olivia Hussey — best known for playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) — believes she has fulfilled her life’s dream in portraying Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the recently re-released DVD movie Mother Teresa (Ignatius Press, 2006).
Hussey previously portrayed the Blessed Mother in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Therese in The Jeweler’s Shop (the screen adaptation of Karol Wojtyla-St. John Paul II’s play, also from Ignatius Press). She has also starred in more than two dozen films and guest-starred in numerous television series.
But she longed for something more. She desperately wanted to portray the beloved “saint of the gutters.” She even begged Italian director and producer Franco Zeffirelli for years, “Please, do the life of Mother Teresa so I can play her.”
It took a while to come to fruition, but, finally, as Providence would have it, Hussey was awarded her long-awaited dream role.
She recently spoke about her role as Mother Teresa and why the blessed nun inspires her.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your portrayal of Mother Teresa, whose feast day is Sept. 5. It is my honor to speak with you, Ms. Hussey.
Oh, how lovely. Thank you. Have you seen the film?
Yes, I have, and it is beautiful.
It’s really nice that they are re-releasing it. It was really well received in Italy. The Missionaries of Charity — headed by Sister Nirmala, who continues Mother’s work — endorsed the film and loved it. I got to go to the motherhouse in Rome, and I got to meet a couple of the older nuns who worked with Mother in the beginning. One was so tiny and sweet. They showed me Mother’s bedroom where Mother slept. Her slippers were there. It was such an honor. And then we shot the film.
The film was shot prior to Mother Teresa’s beatification ceremony in 2003?
It was a really tough shooting schedule, because we wanted to finish it in time for Mother Teresa’s beatification in Rome. I got to sit amongst all the Missionaries [at the ceremony].
How was that experience?
It was wonderful — their energy, their purity, the love of what they do. I always thought that when I met them they would be very intense and very serious because of the kind of work they do. Instead, they were giggling and laughing, and they had a light in their eyes — just such conviction and such beauty of soul. Very inspiring!
I met them, and before I left, I said, “I’ll be back, and I really want to know that you’ve enjoyed the performance. It means a lot to me.” I went back to Rome, and they said, “We felt as though we were watching Mother. It’s as though Mother came through you.” I get goose bumps even talking about it now.
I observed on your website that you completed your “life’s dream” in portraying Mother Teresa. Would you kindly explain?
I had always wanted to play her, and I watched all kinds of tapes and documentaries and read books about her. She was one of the saints that I revered — absolutely! Because this little lady, just through her sheer faith and will, stepped out into the streets of Calcutta and founded an order of nuns and helped the poorest of the poor.
I was shooting Jesus of Nazareth with Franco Zeffirelli. After it was over, we did a lot of interviews and publicity, and some publicity people started saying, “What do you do after playing the Virgin Mary?” [She laughs.] “You’ve been Juliet, and, now, you’ve played the Virgin Mary. What role could you possibly want to play?” Without hesitation, I said, “Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”
How did you get the role?
Out of the blue, this Italian company came and said, “Would you like to play Mother Teresa of Calcutta?” I said, “Would I?!” And I had two weeks to prepare.
How does Mother Teresa inspire you?
I think she inspired me because she never took No for an answer. Do you remember that one documentary [that included the story about her] where they were fighting a war [in the Middle East]? And she wanted to go across the border to get these children out of this orphanage because they were stuck in a war. And people were saying, “Mother, you can’t walk over there; they are in the middle of a war.” And she said, “I have spoken to the Virgin Mary, and everything will be fine.”
The next day, the war ceased fire long enough for her to walk over and get the children. And, to me, I just get goose bumps when I remember that. That’s how she inspired me. There was nothing that could come between her and what she believed was the truth. That, to me, is the most inspiring thing.
You get afraid; you go through challenges — it’s how you handle them that is important. … Just breathe deeply and say, “God, you’re in control. … I’m just a pencil in the hands of God” [to paraphrase a popular saying of Mother Teresa]. It applies to all people.
You consider Blessed Teresa to be “a beam of light.”
I love [people who are] beams of light. I believe she was one of them. She carried that light and love [of God]. I think she had her moments of doubts, as all great saints did. But I think that, on that train to Darjeeling, she had that call of calls, and it really took over her whole life.
Yes, even when she felt those feelings of abandonment like Our Lord felt and as many of the saints felt, she continued to put one foot in front of the other to walk in faith and to pick those people up out of the gutters.
She couldn’t do what she did without faith. We all go through difficult crises, and we all have the days when we say to God, “Are you really there, God?” Honestly, how could God not be there? You look at the world; you look at people — you know God is everywhere.
You played Therese in The Jeweler’s Shop. Do you think Karol Wojtyla’s (now St. John Paul II) message in The Jeweler’s Shop still inspires people today?
It’s about families and love. What we need more of is love. Love is everything. When you take everything else away, all that’s really left is love.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I just wish that the world would be a place filled with love — more love today than ever before; that’s what’s needed.
So we need to say a lot of prayers, right?
A lot of prayers, positive affirmation. Try to see God in everybody and everything.
Just as Mother Teresa did. She would say, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it to me,” as you know. And she would see Jesus in everyone.
Mother Teresa was a beam of light [who shared love with the world].
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is an EWTN TV host,
speaker and author of numerous books including,
Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship.
Image courtesy of Ignatius Press