Actress no stranger to biblical roles

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For Jacqueline Bisset, riding a camel is all in a days work. Surrounded by thousands of extras, donkeys, goats, and sheep, Ms. Bisset and costar Martin Landau recently completed filming the biblical epic "In the Beginning..." in Morocco.

The four-hour miniseries, which covers the first two books of the Bible, from Creation to the Commandments, gave Bisset the opportunity to play Sarah, the faithful wife of Abraham (Landau). With Sarah at his side, Abraham leads his followers to a new land where they could worship the one true God, not idols. The miniseries airs Sunday (NBC, 9-11 p.m.) and Monday (8-10 p.m.).

Bisset is no stranger to biblical roles or to Morocco. "Last year I [went to Morocco] to play Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the television film 'Jesus.' I stayed at the same hotel, and in the same room."

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The Emmy-nominated actress has made 50 movies, including such diverse roles as a James Bond girl in the spoof "Casino Royale"; Napoleon's love, Princess Josephine; and Anna Karenina. She's also appeared in such classic films as "The Deep" and "Murder on the Orient Express." In the past two years, she has played the mother of Joan of Arc, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and now Sarah.

"In the Beginning..." was challenging. Bisset plays Sarah across many years, the Bible recording that she died at 127.

Bisset had not met Oscar-winner Landau prior to the shoot. "After the first rehearsal, I thought, 'here is the most remarkable actor I've ever worked with.' I've seen his performances, of course, but I didn't know what finesse he had, how it extended down to every subtlety.

"Some of his dialogue from the Bible is so familiar one has to be careful not to fall into the well-known way of saying the lines, so they seem dull. At our first table reading, Martin said, 'In the beginning, God....' This was just a rehearsal, but he made the words actually spellbinding," she recalls.

Bisset discovered many shades to Sarah - her distrust when the voice of God reveals she will have a baby in her old age, her jealousy of Hagar, and learning that Abraham was willing to sacrifice her only son to prove his obedience and faith.

Today, Bisset isn't in a rush to do one film after another. "I don't want to accept a role that six months later I'll feel weird about doing. I look for scripts that are relevant and often inspirational."

She would really love to do a comedy. "It's always good to lighten up - which is something my mother taught me."

When Bisset first began her career, she knew family finances wouldn't support her. "I had to get cracking and develop a fire in my belly," she says. "Those studio biographies that refer to me as a model are stretching it. I was trying to be one, so I could finance acting lessons. I received my first paycheck in 1965 in a movie called 'The Knack.' "

A big career boost was "Casino Royale," in which she was cast as "Miss Goodthighs." "I really appreciated the money, but I was embarrassed by the name. When you're a teenager you feel uncomfortable with your body...."

A few years later, she appeared in "The Detective," with Frank Sinatra. He advised, "Trust your instincts - they're good."

Until then, she felt the director was always right, so she'd do the scene as he insisted.

"I was becoming a doormat until Frank told me that," Bisset says. "I've learned the more you trust yourself the more you grow. If you have a great director and a great script, you are protected. The dialogue just flows."

Bisset lives in a lovely Santa Fe-style home, surrounded by trees, in a winding canyon in Beverly Hills. She also commutes to her native England and to France. She speaks French fluently and has done several movies there - with no dubbing necessary.

"When I really want to get back to my roots," she adds, "I go to my childhood home [near Weybridge, England]. It's over 100 years old, and has a thatched roof and no heat. I still own it. It reminds me of my young dreams, and how so many have been fulfilled."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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