Written by / 12/20/2012 / 1 Comment / , , , ,

LIGHTING UP 'ALICE B. TOKLAS' WITH LEIGH TAYLOR-YOUNG

Leigh Taylor-Young and Peter Sellers
LEIGH TAYLOR-YOUNG, after working for a year on the popular television series PEYTON PLACE, went onto a leading role in the Peter Sellers classic film I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOLKAS where she played Nancy, a free-spirited hippie girl who, with an intoxicating beauty and a special recipe for brownies, changes the course of a stuffy man's existence...

How was it working with such a big star, Peter Sellers?

I was just twenty-two and it was a leap from television into a major film with a major superstar at the time... It actually wasn’t that daunting because he was so creative, so wonderful with me, and so welcoming and funny, that he made it fairly effortless. To say what kind of talent he is – it’s kind of hard to describe because he would be familiar to people, I would say, from forty-five up unless they’re, like yourself, a student of film going back…

With Peter Sellers
And then of course they pick up Peter Sellers in his early English films, and then his stardom in America and the “Pink Panther” series, his unique kind of comedy.

Blake Edwards directed him so many times, and for me some of those films are utterly classic comedies.

He’s English and wacky – gifted with voices and often when he’d have his driver pick me up for work, when we would go to the same location we’d drive together and just entertain ourselves... He would take me on a world tour as a storyteller, make up a story with his character going from country to country, and each country he would enter in, he would take on the accent of that country – and he was telling the story he was making up on the spot. So, I was exposed to such a spoiling experience in a lot of respects.

Was there a lot of improvisation in this film?

Leigh Taylor-Young
With Peter you did improvise. There were some scenes that weren’t quite right so Peter and Paul Mazursky, who was the writer of the film, not the director... Paul – who went on to a very creative film career, as you know – and Larry Tucker was his writing partner: They creatively bonded with Peter much more than Hy Averback, who was kind of an old-school television director… They sort of bypassed him… They got very creative on the set and we did scenes, which were shot and worked beautifully…

Because Paul was so creative, Peter was so creative, and so a number of the scenes in the movie were… I wouldn’t say completely improvisational, but took on that quality in terms of how you worked some of the scenes. And for me that was so much fun because one of the things that was so great (and I feel so strongly about this) is when they welcomed me into the film, never having done a film, Peter, Paul, Larry – they welcomed me as a co-worker, not kind of, “Oh you’re just the young beautiful girl who has the major role in the movie.”

Leigh Taylor-Young and Peter Sellers
Peter welcomed me as a co-worker, which is a remarkable thing to do to people. That is immensely generous, very stimulating, and I personally think that with the person you’re extending that privilege to, their talent will thrive. And they did that for me… I thrived because I was very well educated in my craft...

So when they did that with me I was ready… I was ready to fly… I was ready to take the invitation… To match them, to work with them, and to feel like I was ready, in many ways, although never touching the majesty of Peter’s reputation… But I was allowed to feel like I could touch the sun.

Peter plays a character that starts out uptight and then becomes a laidback hippie… Which person was more like the real Peter Sellers?

Peter Sellers
I have to say, on the personality level, if you remove the idea of a Jewish lawyer to hippie, that kind of arc-type idea: Peter had a very uptight quality to him… In his intensity, in his demands, in his absolute ruthlessness for certain things that he wants...

Sometimes they were unreasonable, and he would get all kind of obsessed and tense about it, but that was more the shadow side of that kind of raw, intense talent. The other side of him was very much the hippie, in the sense of… playful, you know he… I had no knowledge whatsoever of drugs…

Mixing Brownies
I was very fresh out of the Midwest… All of the sudden I’m in a skirt three-fourths up my thighs, saying "cool" and "groovy" and smoking pot… And making brownies… I had absolutely not one reference point for this character and Ryan [O’Neal] gave me the greatest key, because I’d never smoked anything when I auditioned for this. As you know she’s the one who’s smoking and doing the brownies, and Ryan said… He knew I was a great aficionado of classical music, having grown up in the ballet world… He said, “Just be listening to your favorite symphony, which sort of pulls your consciousness out as if you’re sort of out of it; you’re listening to something else, and that can represent a high.”

Special Recipe
And when we went to the audition, he looked at what I was wearing. And we had motorcycles at that time that we drove, and he said, “I’ll drive you to the audition.” And I had on this sort of shammy tunic top that came to the middle of my thigh with the shammy bell-bottom pants, and he said to me, “Take off the pants, don’t wear the pants, and you’ve got sort of a mini.” And I said, “Oh no.” Being the girl I was, I said, “I can’t do that.” He said, “No, this is a character.” So I did and I walked in with the short skirt and with this correction for the character, and I got the job on the spot. I mean on the spot, Paul and Peter said, “That’s it, you got it. Right now you’ve got it.” Which is pretty fantastic.

Hippied Sellers
And Peter, yes, he was into what you would call social drugs or things of that nature, as was Paul. And I’d come onto the set and I’d smell this smell… Because I was into alternative healing... Even in the late sixties I was a vegetarian at the time, and I was into meditation and yoga. I was a very, very early person in all this and I’m like, “Oh, somebody’s got herbs.” Finally one day I figured it out… That people were getting stoned.

"I didn’t know what it looked like to do a so-called toke..."
The best story about that was – the first time ever in my life, given that it was 1967 and it was very much in the culture but not in my personal culture, I was shooting a scene in the movie where he picks me off the street, if you remember, hitchhiking. He takes me back to his apartment… He’s asthmatic… He leaves me in the living room and I say that’s all right, just leave the sound off my TV and I’ll be fine. And he goes into his bedroom and he’s got his inhaler, and he’s doing his inhaler but he hears sort of inhalations other than his inhaler. And what I’m doing is lighting a joint in the living room, watching Cowboys and Indians with no sound and getting high.

LTY Interview
I didn’t know how I was going to do this scene… I didn’t even know what it looked like to do a so-called “toke” or even roll the cigarette. Fortunately, on the set, one of the grips was French and he rolled his own cigarettes and he showed me how to do it.

Leigh acting stoned
Well when we lined up the shot it was a five-inch camera right close up, because they go way into my face.

To line up the shot they handed me all the tools and in a little vial was oregano to simulate the grass. When they went to shoot the scene, they gave me grass and didn’t tell me. In the vial… that they gave me… it was grass! So they’re shooting the scene, the camera’s rolling, and they say, “Just do whatever; you’re watching TV.” I’m actually staring at sixty men holding reflectors and lights and everything else, pretending to be watching a television screen with Cowboys and Indians and no sound, rolling a joint... Someone had shown me what taking a toke looked like – and I’m praying inside, going, “Oh God, I hope I do this right.” I take a couple of tokes, and then, all of the sudden it was like the top of my head transformed. My acting skills came in, and on some level of my brain there was a little voice that said, “Use it… Use it.” So on screen you just see my eyes are gigantic… And that’s the moment that it took, and I just stayed with it, knowing on some level what they’ve done but I stayed with it – and that was the first time ever I had that experience.
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