THE UNEXPECTED, purrs Susan George. “Ah, yes, that’s what I love to aim for.” As she prepares for the opening night of her first photographic exhibition, the woman who, as a young actress shocked the world, appears to have achieved just that once again.
“Its not a conscious decision exactly. Instinct has always played a huge part in my life,” she says. “Just as I used my instinct in front of camera; just as I used my instinct for a character, I now use it as a photographer – knowing when to capture that moment before it passes.”
After more than a decade in Hollywood looking, mostly in vain, for work which could match her 1971 breakthrough role starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, her instinct told her she could find satisfaction in something else entirely.
“Years ago, at the height of my career in Hollywood, I was offered repetitious roles all the time,” she says. “Perhaps in this day and age an actress would be advised to play to those strengths – to do more of the kind of things she is already known for – but in my day, and I do hate to make it sound like that’s light years ago, it just didn’t seem sensible to do that.”
She was then, as she is now, remembered for playing Amy Sumner, the English wife of a mild-mannered American mathematician in Peckinpah’s controversial work. In an explicit scene that earned the film an X certificate, a video ban and enduring notoriety, Amy, a flirtatious “sexpot”, was subjected to a brutal double rape.
“I used to thumb through every script I received to see at what point I had to take my clothes off. I’d think, ‘Before we go any further, let’s get to the bit where she strips’.
“All the way through a career, you take two steps up the ladder, three back, five up, one back, and so on. I had been on that ladder quite a while and, whilst I was in quite a good place, I decided it was better to sidestep the ladder and do something completely different and go to the top with that.”
Today, as a vivacious, giggly, 57-year-old, she stands proudly at the top of another ladder. While memories of her most powerful work have barely faded in the intervening years, she has an established reputation, particularly in the Gulf, as a breeder of Arabian horses. Photographing these animals, which began as a hobby, is now another professional occupation. “Everything I do, I want to be really good at – really successful,” she says. “But you can’t give 100 per cent of yourself if you’re being a jack of all trades.
“I admire people enormously who eat, sleep and breathe acting. That’s what you have to do to get to the top. I’ve made an awful lot of movies but the ones I have become passionate about I could count on my 10 fingers. I never fell out of love with acting, not for a second, but it has been a long time since I had that fantastic role in Straw Dogs.
“The only thing that could tempt me back now is a role that demanded 100 per cent of me.
“It would have to have that element of jumping off a bridge blindfolded. I love that sort of danger. I need a challenge. Being comfortable has never appealed to me.”
Quite apart from her on-screen image, Susan became known for a string of high-profile relationships, the most famous of which was a brief fling in 1978 with Prince Charles, whom she describes as “a very nice man”. But even before that, her personal life was gossip column fodder. Among others, she was linked with George Best, Andy Gibb, Jimmy Connors and Rod Stewart. “I have never known life without being a public person: I have worked as an actress since childhood,” she adds. “There was, inevitably, a merging of Susan George and Amy Sumner and, yes, in some ways we were alike.
“I wasn’t a shy girl – I was hardly a shrinking violet. I never shied away from the image I had. The only thing I ever wanted to change was my reputation as an actress because I really believed I was worthy of that and still do.”
“Being in the public eye, making movies and having the kind of career I’ve had, you put yourself up for it, I suppose,” she says. But meeting and marrying “the greatest partner, the love of my life”, the actor Simon MacCorkindale, triggered her retreat.
“When we decided to get married in 1984 we needed to decide where to do it,” she remembers. “Because at the time my life was being somewhat documented by the world’s press on a constant basis, I wanted to go to the other side of the world. We headed for Fiji.”
ADDS Susan: “Our decision to leave Hollywood and come home to England, bringing our fledgling production company with us, was a strange one. English though we both were, we met in the States and, instinctively perhaps, we knew the time was right.
“I had been in California for 12 years and I missed my mum and dad terribly. But what was driving me was this dream that, if we settled somewhere, I could also set up a stud farm.”
What started with an initial purchase of one mare and one foal is now a full-scale business at the couple’s West Country farm and includes a sideline in aromatherapy shampoos and treatments for dogs and horses. How’s that for unexpected? “I now have 56 Arabian horses and I have bred 49 of them,” she says. “I like to bring horses into the world that have great purpose for people who want to love them, take them on to do great things with them just as I have done.”
“I am never happier than when I’m running about in the fields, getting my cameras muddy, doing everything it takes to capture their extraordinary beauty.”
BUT, despite treasuring her privacy and the life she shares with Simon – “home, the farm, the horses, it’s so special” – she has by no means cut herself off from her showbusiness past.
Still acting and producing occasionally, she continues to feel part of the industry. “My husband and I were recently in Hollywood, where I was presenting Dustin with his American Film Institute award,” she says. “As I stood on the red carpet I wondered whether this fickle place would remember me at all.
“But I could barely believe the reception I got. I suppose if you’re lucky enough to be in a film that stands the test of time they won’t forget you.
“People think I don’t like to talk about that film any more but I certainly do. It was a great gift. It was a very important moment in my life, it took me to America and made me an international name.
“I’ll die a very happy woman if that is the only thing I ever receive recognition for.” Yet, with so many talents, it’s an unlikely scenario.