role call

Frances Fisher Answers Every Question We Have About Titanic

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Frances Fisher isn’t sure there’s anything left to say about Titanic, and who can blame her? Few cultural touchstones have been as widely documented and debated as James Cameron’s 1997 voyage across the ocean. The heart may go on, but it does not forget a juggernaut like this — one of only three movies to make off with 11 Oscars. Still, Fisher accepted Vulture’s invitation to sail down memory lane 25 years later.

By the time Fisher auditioned for the film, she had already done several years on the soap opera The Edge of Night, portrayed Lucille Ball in a TV movie, and appeared in Patty Hearst, L.A. Story, Unforgiven (directed by her then-partner Clint Eastwood), and Striptease. As the prim and proper Ruth Dewitt Bukater, mother to Kate Winslet’s Rose Dewitt Bukater (otherwise known as “Dawson, Rose Dawson”), Fisher has the pinched face and ramrod posture of someone hell-bent on protecting her highborn image. Ruth isn’t as despicable as Rose’s fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane), but she comes awfully close. Together, they’re as easy to hate as Cameron’s movie is to love. Fisher has gone on to do other great work in the intervening years, including The Lincoln Lawyer and HBO’s Watchmen, but Titanic will probably always be her defining vessel.

When you were auditioning for James Cameron, did you have any sense that this movie was meant to be as big as it became?
There’s no way of knowing that — especially during an audition process. There’s no possible way that anybody in their right mind could think about this movie other than taking the first steps. I didn’t know it was going to make the kind of money it made and have the kind of impact it had on people.

I ask because there was already so much attention before its release, so while no one could have predicted it would be the highest-grossing movie ever made at the time and sweep the Oscars, I wondered whether you felt from the outset that you were walking into a behemoth of a project.
Not really. I knew it was a big deal to build a studio in Mexico. Seeing the ship on the shore, I knew the scale was huge. But that doesn’t translate into how the public is going to receive it. That’s not what I do. I’m an actress. I’m going to work, and I don’t pay attention to all that.

You’ve talked before about feeling immersed in Ruth as soon as the costumes came on, which makes sense for the character and the setting in which you found yourself. What did those costumes do for your physical embodiment of Ruth — her mannerisms, posture, way of speaking?
It was the easiest role to ever get into, because Deborah Scott, the magnificent costume designer, dressed us from the inside out. Having that corset on completely changes your breathing style and posture. Also the hairstyles. That was all my hair put up under a huge hat. That was another thing that contributes to a kind of grumpiness that I think Ruth had. Nobody could breathe correctly. There were not a lot of places where you could rest. Sitting down was difficult. The corset would dig into your body, and you couldn’t lean back — the hat was so big. They had all these resting boards for us, but nobody who had their hair up in a big hat could use them. The proportions were incorrect. So we did a lot of standing around.

I was going to ask if that meant you had to stay upright the whole time.
Yeah, basically. And when we were shooting on the ship, some of the women — like Kathy, Kate, and I — would say, “Okay, are you guys ready to go back to the dressing room to relieve ourselves?” They had porta-potties on the set, and there was no way any of us could get into a porta-potty with those big dresses on. So we would stand in the back of a flatbed truck, and they would drive us back to the dressing rooms, so we could take care of what we needed to take care of.

What did you learn from the etiquette lessons the cast had before the shoot?
We did lessons on how to hold a glass, which piece of silverware goes with what, how to get in and out of a chair, a little bit of dancing and walking up and down stairs, manners. It was very helpful.

Did the scene toward the end where Ruth is urging Rose to get into the lifeboat look the way we see it in the movie — with your boat attached to the side of the ship? 
Yeah, I was in the lifeboat as it was being lowered down, pleading up at Rose to get in. We shot it in real time. We did lots and lots of takes and turnarounds. We shot it over and over again.

Was it cold?
Not particularly. It was late summer or early fall, because we were done before Christmas. It wasn’t super-cold. Plus we were very well dressed. We had layers and layers of clothes on. All of the breath was done in postproduction. People had to be immersed in that water for hours on end, so it wasn’t icy cold. But I never got wet, so I never had to deal with water. All the background people said it was quite pleasant. And there was a hot tub. When they would take a break, everyone would get out of the tanks and go sit in the hot tub to keep their body temperature up.

Were you ever envious that you didn’t get to run through knee-high water as so many of your colleagues did? 
I was very happy to have not had to go through all that. I would go to the set on days I was not called to work just to watch, and I was watching the frozen bodies around Kate and Leo on the door. Then they called for a break, and it was the funniest sight to see all of these dead bodies who were floating in the water stand upright, walk up the stairs, and step into the hot tub with frozen stuff on their faces. They’d be eating their sandwiches with purple lips. It was quite the sight.

That’s funny. I didn’t realize actors played those bodies. I assumed they were dummies.
I don’t know if it was every single person, but there were a lot of live people. The floating baby, obviously, was not a real baby, but a lot of background people were playing dead bodies.

A couple of years ago, I spoke to the food stylist who’d worked on Titanic, and she said a lot of her budget went to real caviar that Cameron had requested for the dinner scene where Leo learns proper silverware etiquette. Do you recall actually eating that caviar while shooting?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, when we found out that it was real, good caviar, Jonathan Hyde, who played Ismay, said, “I’m going to make myself into a character who just loves caviar.” It took us a week to shoot that whole scene from so many different angles, and he kept trying to match his eating. Then he didn’t want to see another bowl of caviar in his life, because he ate so much. It was really funny. You don’t want to eat so much on-camera at the beginning, when you’re doing the first few takes. You might be hungry at the time you’re shooting the scene, but when you come to the fourth setup, you’re not going to want to eat as much. You have to figure out how to pretend to chew instead of actually chewing and swallowing.

I can understand why thousands of dollars of caviar would be tempting.
Yeah. Then after a week, you’re over it.

Speaking of Cameron, a lot of people have strong feelings about him on both sides. Kate Winslet has said, “There were times I was genuinely frightened of him” and “He has a temper like you wouldn’t believe.” How would you characterize Cameron as you experienced him?
I loved working with him, and we’re great friends. I wasn’t on the set as long as other people were, but I had a great time. I have great respect for his vision and ability to lead that group of people. It’s a lot. We had two first ADs — it was that big. He loved it. He was always up and always energized. He had great enthusiasm.

What stands out to you about the night of the Oscars?
I barely remember it to tell you the truth. It was a long time ago! It was a very heady night. I remember meeting Celine Dion and her husband giving me a big hug. The excitement of all of that was great. How many did we win — 11?

Yeah, almost all of them.
Yeah, it was great to be acknowledged for all the hard work that everyone had done. We were down there for six months doing the flashback part. It was a long shoot.

You certainly rode an exciting wave, no pun intended, throughout the release — including sitting behind Prince Charles at the London premiere. 
There’s a cute story with that. We were at the Royal Albert theater. We were all lined up, and Prince Charles and all of his people were sitting in the first row. Leo and the rest of the cast were sitting behind them. I had flown in that day and got ready. It was a whirlwind. I had a little purse with lipstick and my room key, and at the end of the movie, because I had not seen it completed until that night, I was bawling my eyes out. It was a very emotional ending, as you know. My eye makeup was streaking everywhere, and I had a beaded dress on, so I couldn’t wipe my eyes with my hand. Prince Charles is right in front of me, and I noticed they had these little doilies on the back of the seat for all the royals. I leaned over and said, “Your Royal Highness, if you don’t mind, may I borrow your doily to wipe my makeup?” And he turned around and put his arm on my arm and said, “It’s a marathon, darling. It’s a marathon.” Then he gave me the doily, which I still have.

Do you have any other Titanic memorabilia?
I got some of the place settings and tablecloths. I kept some of my costumes. Things like that. I always keep mementos of things I’ve done. I have a lot of memorabilia.

I have to ask: Could Jack have fit on the door? What’s your verdict on that never-ending debate? 
I’m so tired of hearing that.

Fair. Me too. But I feel like people will be mad if I don’t ask for your opinion.
Well, so many people have done the measurements and this and that: “They would have sunk, because it wasn’t that sturdy,” blah, blah, blah. That whole thing is so silly to me. The story wouldn’t have been told the way it ended up. He had to die.

Yes. Trying to get scientific with the movie distracts from the actual narrative of the film, which is the romance.
Yeah. I’ll say one story about Jim’s passion for what he was doing. There was a scene on the grand staircase where Kate walks down and Leo is pretending to shake hands, because he’s dressed in the suit that Kathy Bates had given him. We’re doing a shot of Leo looking down from Kate’s point of view, and there was a little scuff mark on the wall behind Leo’s head. It was out of focus. They were shooting down on him, but Jim went, “Stop, stop! This is a brand-new ship! There wouldn’t have been a scuff mark here.” We shot out of order, and there were a lot of background people and crew members walking back and forth. He said, “We’ve got to get that scuff mark out.” So everyone went scurrying, including Jim, and he was the one who got down on his knees and got the scuff mark out. I walked over to him and said, “Jim, you have people for this.” He goes, “Well, I knew where the scuff was. I’ve worked every job on a set, and you just have to do it.” He pitched in. He wasn’t lording over people. Whatever he needed to do to get the job done — that was his attitude.

I can picture him doing that in my head as you describe it.
And he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just needed to get the mark out, so he went and got a bucket and got on his knees.

I love that. Are there any other defining Titanic memories for you?
Nothing that I would want to put in print.

Oh? What does that mean?
You know, we had a lot of bonding experiences. I remember for Thanksgiving, I went home and had dinner with my family. I had to be back at work the next day, so I brought the carcass of the turkey with me and had a big pot and made turkey soup. That night, I invited the cast and some of the crew over to my casita, and we all had a little post-Thanksgiving gathering. We did things like that. There was a lot of bonding that went on when we weren’t working. The band that played in third class was always playing music at the hotel, so if you wanted to go somewhere and hang out, you could always go to the hotel and listen to them play, because there wasn’t anything to do. It depended on who was working and who wasn’t working. Leo and Kate didn’t have a lot of downtime. They would usually go home and go to bed — they had to be up bright and early the next day.

Who else on the set were you particularly fond of?
Obviously, Kate and Leo. I’m still great friends with Billy Zane and Jonathan Hyde. All of us who were the secondary cast are still connected. I talk to Rochelle Rose, who played the countess, a lot. It’s been 25 years!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The others are Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. From a 1997 Washington Post story: “Filming ‘Titanic’ required construction of a $20 million studio in Mexico, a 775-foot facsimile of the doomed ship and a year of meticulous special-effects work.”
Frances Fisher Answers All Our Questions About Titanic