In director Tony Richardson's 1961 film version of Shelagh Delaney's London and Broadway stage hiit "A Taste of Honey," 19-year-old Rita Tushingham made her film debut as Jo.
The tragedy of Jo, a homely Manchester working-class girl, is that the two sweet moments in her dreary life are in the past: a brief romance with a black sailor who makes her pregnant during his shore leave, and a short-lived friendship with a young homosexual who comforts her.
The Studio Theatre opens its production of "A Taste of Honey" tomorrow night, marking the 25th anniversary of the poignant drama, written by Delaney at age 18.
"It was really like going in at the deep end for me at first," Tushingham says about her youthful plunge into celebrity in a controversial (for 1961) movie. "I didn't think about 'controversy' then. I loved the role, I didn't think about the implications.
"Maybe the movie did break new ground, I don't know," Tushingham says. "All those other 'realistic' films seemed to come out at that time: 'Look Back in Anger', 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.' Funnily enough, though, I was very naive; because of where I grew up (I'm a Liverpudlian) I didn't think anything about whether the story would be controversial. Thinkgs like that happened every day, all around you."
Tushingham began her career at Liverpool Repertory Theator when she was 15. "I started backstage, making the tea, looking after the actors, doing stage management for two years," she says. "One day, I read in the newspaper they were looking for an unknown for the film of 'A Taste of Honey.' They auditioned over 2,000 girls for the part of Jo -- not as many as they did for 'Annie,' at any rate," Tushingham says with a laugh.
"People are always asking me about the '60s, like I should be some sort of expert," Tushingham says. "It's like being in the middle of a hurricane, you can't describe it till it's over. Creativity was allowed to blossom, we were all allowed this marvelous freedom, there was money to do things. For example, in the '40s and '50s, they wouldn't put us on the screen, because we weren't 'the girl next door.' All of a sudden they gave us the freedom to play interesting roles, character roles."
"People always say, 'Oh, you've played a lot of waifs ...,' but they were just girls. It's just that a lot of those everyday characters had never been on the screen before," she says. "I do hope I didn't get typed. I feel myself that I tried to do different things with those women."
"A Taste of Honey" was well-received worldwide and led to a flurry of tours and appearances for Tushingham, who usually was accompanied by her mother.
The actress says she has remained close friends with Paul Danquah, who played the black sailor in the film. Danquah, who now works as an information officer at the World Bank in Washington, says he "still gets into the hamming," acting in and narrating films for the bank.
Tushingham says she has been doing quite a bit of stage and screen work recently, including her American stage debut. "I did 'My Fat Friend' at the Westubry Theater in Los Angeles last year," she says. "I noticed that they don't much like going to the theater there, it's not like it is in London, where everyone is always off to the theater. People go to the theater in London more than the movies."
What really interests her now, she says, is th movie she's planning with her husband, Ousama Rawi, an Iraqi commercial producer/director based in Toronto. "We're trying to produce our own film, based on Ruth Rendell's novel 'A Judgement in Stone.' It's a marvelous psychological thriller. I've worked with Ousama as a cinematographer, but he's never directed me before." Tushingham and Rawi have been married for a year and a half. Tushingham has two daughters from a previous marriage, Dedonna, 18, and Aisha, 14.
Because of production schedules, the family now shuttles between their Toronto and London homes. "But an actor is a gypsy, really," Tushingham says. "I honestly don't mind where I am, as long as I'm working. I've done that since I was 18. It's just the way our life is."