An Iconic Screen Presence

Actress Olivia Hussey discusses starring in Mother Teresa: “I had always wanted to play her…She was one of the saints that I revered—absolutely!”

Actress Olivia Hussey was so sick during the filming of the movie Mother Teresa that she could have easily given up. During intense moments, she felt she lacked the strength and health to continue. But one day, out of sheer necessity, she sat down in her chair on the set, closed her eyes, and asked God and Mother Teresa to help her. Unexpectedly, a profound peace instantly came over her. And when a “bright light” came into her head as she finished voicing the prayer, she felt an unfathomable calm envelop her which thoroughly convinced her that she would be able to get through each intense day of filming on location in Sri Lanka and Italy.

Ms. Hussey was born in Buenos Aires City, Argentina on April 17, 1951. She began drama school in England at age seven and delighted in the creative acting education for the next five years. Soon after, Ms. Hussey landed a role, portraying Jenny in a stage production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. As it happened, Italian director and producer Franco Zeffirelli—who had auditioned over 500 young actresses for the role of Juliet in his film of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1968)—was in the audience watching.

Zeffirelli subsequently awarded Ms. Hussey the part of Juliet. Just 15 during shooting, Ms. Hussey played the celebrated role to great acclaim. Her acting won a Golden Globe and two successive Best Actor Donatello Awards (Italy’s Oscar equivalent). Interestingly, since Ms. Hussey was under 18 years of age, she was not legally allowed to attend the London premiere of Romeo and Juliet since the film contained nudity—even though she was the one who was nude in the film.

Ms. Hussey has appeared in over two dozen films and guest-starred in numerous television series. Continuing in an acting career throughout her life, she has portrayed some notably “holy” roles: the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth; Therese, the faithful wife and mother in the screen adaptation of The Jeweler’s Shop, Karol Wojtyla’s (now St. John Paul II) play; and most recently, as Mother Teresa.

Ms. Hussey renders an inspiring and compelling portrayal of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the determined and compassionate saint of the gutters. Portraying Mother Teresa was a long-awaited dream role for Ms. Hussey, and she was delighted when an Italian film company invited her to take the part.

“I had always wanted to play her … She was one of the saints that I revered—absolutely! 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 mean, I get goose bumps thinking about it!”

Ms. Hussey recently took time from her busy schedule to speak with The Catholic World Report about her roles as Mother Teresa and Therese. Incidentally, Pope John Paul II called The Jeweler’s Shop film “the best possible film based on my play.” And, according to Ms. Hussey, sisters of the Missionaries of Charity told Ms. Hussey, “We felt as if we were watching Mother. It’s as though Mother came through you!”

Catholic World Report: I observed on your website that you completed “your life’s dream” in portraying Mother Teresa. Would you kindly explain?

Olivia Hussey: 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 chuckles.] You’ve played 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!”

CWR: Wow. You said that before— 

Hussey: Yes, I did! This was a long, long time ago. I was 27 years old. So, interviews and things over the years—people would ask, “If you could play anything what would you like to play?” And I said, “Mother Teresa of Calcutta!”

CWR: That’s great! What happened next?

Hussey: And one time it almost came together. They were going to do a production and some company, I can’t remember the name—it was a long time ago—and they said that Jacqueline Onassis had heard about it, and she had gone to Mother Teresa and said, “There is only one actress that should play you, Mother, and that’s Olivia Hussey.” And I heard she initialed the script, and she approved the role.

CWR: Mother Teresa did?

Hussey: Yes! And, the whole thing fell apart. But it wasn’t meant to be—it was what God wanted.

CWR: As someone who knew Mother Teresa personally, I observed that you did such a wonderful job portraying her—from the way she walked, to her kneeling in the chapel, her speaking, and more. I was so happy to see you portray her so authentically because that would be a hard thing to do. Could you share how you got into the character of Mother Teresa?

Hussey: Aww! I met up with Agi Bojaxhiu [Mother Teresa’s niece and only direct living relative] in Rome, and we stayed friends. She said, “Olivia, it’s like watching my Auntie. It’s incredible what happened to you!” To me, that’s the greatest compliment.

I had always wanted to play her [Mother Teresa], and I watched all kinds of tapes and documentaries and read books about her—she was one of the saints that I revered—absolutely!

CWR: Was there a particular time in the filming that stands out to you as poignant or special in some way?

Hussey: The shoot was such a difficult one because I got sick from the moment we landed in Sri Lanka. We were shooting on top of places where there was human feces and rubbish. They built the City of Hope over a city dump! Everybody was getting sick! And, I could not afford—I did not want to take one day off.

And I’d say to myself, “You know, Mother did the real thing and got through malaria herself. The least I could do if I’m playing her is not to be sick and not to stay in bed.” I worked with temperatures of 104. I had ringing in my ears during some of the scenes, so I’d have to look at the other actor’s lips to know when my line was.

One time it was so bad that my eyes were completely red and bloodshot. We were doing a scene in which there was a wind machine, and I just sat down in my chair, and I closed my eyes and said, “Please God, help me! Mother, if you’re around, please help. I don’t know if I have the strength to get through today.”

I was so sick and I was taking like seven different antibiotics for my ears, and my nose, and my throat. It was just so—[she trails off]. And when I said that, I said, “Please give me strength to keep going because I just want to do the best job I can do.”

And this calm came over me on the set. And, I don’t know—this bright light came into my head and it just calmed. And I got through the day—every day! I’d get through every day!

CWR: That’s so beautiful! In addition to your prayers, how did you prepare for the part?

Hussey: I feel honestly that that little film was meant to be, and it was blessed by her [Mother Teresa]. I had been asking Zeffirelli for many years, “Please do the life of Mother Teresa so I can play her.” And it just didn’t work out. And then, out of the blue, this Italian company came to me and said, “Would you like to play Mother Teresa of Calcutta?” I said, “Would I?!”

And I had two weeks to prepare! But really, I think I had been preparing for the part for 20 years because it had been my dream and my wish to portray her.

CWR: You mentioned earlier that you filmed outdoor scenes in the slums of Sri Lanka. Did you experience any difficulty in seeing the poorest of the poor?

Hussey: It was heartbreaking. But at the same time—what is really strange—you look at those people, you smile at them, you talk to them—they are so happy because they don’t know anything else. I’ve seen more unhappy people in Beverly Hills than the slums of Sri Lanka! I didn’t go to the slums of Calcutta, but I have spent time in India.

CWR: How did Mother Teresa inspire you?

Hussey: I think she inspired me because she never took “no” for an answer! She walked in her truth. There was nothing that could come between her and what she believed is the truth. That to me is the most inspiring thing!

Mother Teresa was a beam of light!

CWR: Thank you for portraying her so beautifully. I fell in love with Mother Teresa again watching the movie. I was so thankful that you nailed it. Did you know that she knelt that way in the chapel?

Hussey: Honestly, I had seen a lot of documentaries, and I told you that it was my dream. Really, so many times during the filming I felt as though she was right there with me.

CWR: That’s beautiful.

Hussey: Just over my shoulder—just there—just holding me.

CWR: I planned to ask you if you felt she was with you or praying for you in a special way.

Hussey: Yes, she was there—all the time.

You know, many years ago after I did Jesus of Nazareth, I did a film called The Jeweler’s Shop.

CWR: You played Therese, right?

Hussey: I did. Isn’t that funny? A Therese again!

The Jeweler’s Shop is a beautiful story, very lovely. There was a representative of the Vatican at all times on the set—Monsignor. We got along so well. We’d laugh and giggle a lot. Sometimes it would be so warm where we were shooting in Poland, and he’d take his collar off and I’d say, “Monsignor, you can’t be around without your collar!” And he’d be laughing.

You know, he was one of Pope John Paul’s best friends. And he said the pope was very, very happy I’d be portraying Therese because he loved my portrayal of the Virgin Mary. And then he ordered a private screening of the film at the Vatican.

CWR: And you were invited.

Hussey: My boys were in school, and they gave me like 24 hours’ notice, and I just couldn’t pack up and just go. Somebody told me that when the pontiff walked in the room and looked around at the cast of people that were there he said, “Where’s the rest of the cast?”

They said, “She couldn’t come!” It was very sweet!

CWR: Oh, that was so sweet that he wanted you to be there! Were there any times you remember in the making of The Jeweler’s Shop that stand out to you in a special way or any kind of experience about the film that you want to share?

Hussey: I think the fact that the pope himself had written it—that we were part of it. We became like a family there in Poland. It was a very tough shoot because Poland was communist at the time … I think it was more the camaraderie of the whole thing. We all became like family knowing that the pope was watching the dailies, and his representative was there and loving what he was seeing. It was very special.

CWR: Do you think Karol Wojtyla’s message in The Jeweler’s Shop can inspire people today?

Hussey: It’s about families and love. And, let’s face it—the whole world—what we need more of—it sounds corny, but what we need more of is love. Love is everything! When you take everything else away, all that’s really left is love.

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About Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle 12 Articles
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is EWTN television host, speaker, and author of numerous books including Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship, Catholic Mom's Cafe: 5-Minute Retreats for Every Day of the Year, and The Miraculous Medal: Stories, Prayers, and Devotions. Visit her online at