Genevieve Bujold emerged from her research for "Coma," a tense new thriller about foul play inside a Boston hospital, with a simple piece of advice: "Don't get sick."
Bujold, cast as an inquisitive surgical resident named Dr. Susan Wheeler, spent three days going the rounds with a real surgical resident, Dr. Majorie Fine, at a Veterans Administration hospital in Los Angeles before shooting began.
"The thing that got to me was a case of cardiac arrest," recalled the actress, who passed through town [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] which opens Wednesday at area theaters. "I wasn't totally unprepared for the hospital environment. I'd spent three weeks in a Montreal hospital when my mother was dying. Dr. Fine was the most together person on the scene; she went into action faster than everyone else in emergencies. Still, I can't forget that cardiac case. Especially his color. That man turned the color of eggplant."
Bujold felt that three days on rounds was enough. "It was like being let out of prison," she said. "If you want an intense life, you can certainly find it in that setting but it's not for me. They don't look too good, those residents. When you see what they eat, you know why. The idea of breakfast is one or two of those little boxes of cold cereal. Most of the day they subsist on coffee. Gallons of coffee. For dinner someone fetches pizza or carry-out Chinese food."
Bujold was introduced to Dr. Fine by ex-doctor Michael Crichton, who directed "Coma" from his own adaptation of the current best-seller by Robin Cook, also a doctor. Probably best known as the author of "The Andromeda Strain," Crichton made his feature directing debut with "Westworld." Playing a gutsy professional woman whose life is in jeopardy, Bujold is rarely off the screen. If "Coma" clicks, she is expected to jump in Hollywood status from merely talented and attractive leading actress to Bankable Star.
Bujold was born in 1942 in Montreal, where her father worked as a bus driver. At 14 she began taking private classes in phonetics and diction. She was accepted at the Montreal Conservatory of Drama, but left after three years to accept a role in a repertory production of "The Barber of Seville."
After appearing in several obscure French-Canadian films, as well as dozens of stage and television roles, she was spotted by director Alain Resnais while touring France and Russia with a repertory company in 1965. Resnais cast her in "La Guerre est Finie," which led to roles in PhiLppe De Broca's "King of Hearts" and Louis Malle's "The Thief of Paris." Upon her return to Canada, Bujold starred in several theatrical productions directed by Paul Almond, who subsequently made his film debut directing her in "Isabel."
Bujold and Almond also fell in love, married and had a son, Matthew, who is now 10. The marriage ended in divorce in 1974, but Bujold speaks warmly of Almond, who directed her in two other films. "Act of the Heart" and the unreleased "The Journey." Matthew resides with his mother in Malibu but spends the holidays in Montreal with his father.
"I've been slow to reach out, to take the initiative with my career," Bujold said, "but if there's any truth to the rumors of my bankability, one of the things I'd like to do is help directors like Paul. He worries me sometimes. It's been five years since he's made a film, and it seems a terrible waste. He's beening working on a story about ESP that seems to be stymied by budget requirements, and it amazes me that his determination hasn't been shaken.
"My career just sort of unfolded at the beginning. There were so many beautiful, satisfying films, in France with directors like Resnais and De Broca, then in Canada with Paul and in England with Hal Wallis and Richard Burton when I did 'Anne of the Thousand Days.'
"It was an idyllic time, and everything seemed to fall into place without any special effort on my part. I feel I had to go to Hollywood later, and I don't care to put down anything I've done there. I refuse to approach any acting experience feeling miserable or guilty. Now I'd like to blend the pure artistic satisfaction with a broader popular appeal, and I don't see why that can's be done. It's in sight. All I need to do is reach out, get going. It's taken me 35 years to begin thinking like that, but I'm coming around."
Crichton has said that he sought Bujold for the lead in "Coma" because, "I wanted to do a film about a professional woman, and she's one of the new actresses around who conveys an impression of intelligence." According to Bujold, it was Crichton himself who persuaded her to take the role. "I don't like to read scripts," she said, "and I would not be immediately tempted by anything called 'Coma.' It was Crichton. I met him and liked the way he talked about the movie. He was intelligent and clear. I trusted him, especially the medical background he would bring to the story. I always felt secure about 'Coma.'
"A director must accept me. He must know what I have and be willing to use that personality or those shadings. It doesn't work if a director is looking for shadings I don't have. Michael and I were in accord from the beginning. It was really our movie. We were the same age, we were the only ones there all the time. The other actors would come in for a day at a time, a week at a time. We helped each other, and we grew. That's what you want the experience to be like. I'm not looking for starring roles. I'm looking for good films to be a part of. Just a good film, a good company, a good director, a clan, a family. Mostly I want to work, but I want a balance: some time to watch my son grow up, some time for romance if it happens. I want tall. That's not too much to ask, is it?"