Jacqueline Bisset is trying to explain her roles -- behind the camera as well as in front -- in two made-for-TV dramas of forbidden romance that premiere this week. She's already produced one of her own films ("Rich and Famous"). Did she take a hand in HBO's "Forbidden"? And what about CBS' "Anna Karenina," described by costar Christoper Reeve as her project? Were they her productions, or . . .
"Oh, no," she protested firmly in a clipped British accent. "I don't know what Chris said, but . . . I just wanted to make sure I had some approvals on 'Anna.' I thought the three main characters had to work well together. I was consulted on that . . . I didn't have any role in actually producing 'Anna.' Doreen Bergesen executive-produced it. But I had indeed wanted to do 'Anna' for some time."
And there were approval rights with "Forbidden" too, the director and other actors. "I had not worked with Jurgen $ but I'd seen him in 'Das Boot'" and thought he'd be just fine.
When she describes in appreciative tones the role she plays in "Forbidden," there's a further clue to the makeup of a woman with a head for the business end as well as the glittery side of her craft. "What I liked about 'Forbidden,'>" she said, "was its potential for unsentimentalization of the character. There's a tendency in film to heroine-ize. The characters pat themselves on the back as they go along, becoming sort of Rocky-type characters. Nina von Halder was very unsentimental. Some thought she was tough. I thought she was as tough as she had to be to get through it all."
In "Forbidden," premiering tonight at 8 on Home Box Office, a subscription TV service, Bisset plays a countess who falls in love with a writer. The problem is, she's a Christian, he's Jewish, and they're in Germany in 1939.
The screenplay was adapted by Leonard Gross from his book The Last Jews in Berlin, a non-fiction work concerning the lives of Jews trapped in Germany under Hitler.
"The show is really about people who were very Jewish but felt more German than Jewish and felt threatened by the prospect of being thrown out of Germany," said Bisset. "The reasons the two main characters are devoted to each other are not as straightforward as they at first had thought."
To protect her lover from the Nazis, Von Halder hides Fritz Friedlander, played by Prochnow, a confinement that is complicated by her pregnancy and which places their relationship in more of a crucible than a love nest.
"It's a rather intimate piece," said Bisset. "She becomes his jailer in a sense. In protecting him she has to thwart his impulse to go out. It does put pressure on their romantic ralationship and alters it."
In preparing to play von Halder, Bisset had a chance to meet the real countess, now in her 70s and a veterinarian practicing in Berlin -- "She's quite an extraordinary woman."
Bisset completes her double- barrelled TV debut by starring in a rendition of Leo Tolstoy's novel. She plays a woman locked in a loveless marriage that is approved by the social conventions of late 19th century Russia, while at the same time nursing an affection for another man. Paul Scofield plays the husband, Reeve the other man.
For Anna "I read the book. I had not and have not seen any of the other versions . . . I felt the script had the character," she said. "From my point of view, I found if I was too analytical I felt I would have difficulty playing her. If I took her on a gust of wind . . . there's a primary character who was an airy, vivacious person. I felt if I could catch that in the beginning that I could carry her through to the end."
Both films represent a departure for Bisset. They are her first original pieces for cable or network television. "I was suspicious of cable," said Bisset, who has felt more at home in such films as "Bullitt, " "Murder on the Orient Express" and "The Deep." "But cable seemed to be doing more interesting material than motion pictures."
When these films came up, "TV in general at that point was not on my mind -- going from the large screen to the small screen. I was not sure of that market. It felt little different once we got into it."
In the final frame, said Bisset, it matters more to her what the film is about than whether it's for television or the theater.
"It's the material that interests me, that would make me move from place to place and evolve and grow as an actor," she said.
And what made her move to television? "They were stories about something -- not machines or kids and their sexual deflowering. That's fine for a young actor starting out," said Bisset, who is 38, "but it's not for serious actors. I've done about 40 films and I'm not looking to deflower or be deflowered. I'm looking for substantial work."