Pauline Collins, left, and Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie Quartet.
Pauline Collins, left, and Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie Quartet. Kerry Brown -

Actress thrilled to star in Hoffman's directorial debut

WHEN Dustin Hoffman calls to ask you to star in his directorial debut, you listen.

British actor Pauline Collins didn't hesitate in saying yes to a starring role in Hoffman's comedy drama Quartet, which is set in a home for retired opera singers and musicians.

"I had a phone call from my agent, who said would I read the script and accept a telephone call from Dustin Hoffman. 'Yes please' I said," Collins recalled.

"I loved the part. We spoke for over two hours. He didn't seem to mention he'd seen anything I'd done apart from an interview on a red carpet.

"Later on, when we'd started shooting, I found out that Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay had suggested me for the role."

The Shirley Valentine star plays Cissy, a beloved resident of Beecham House who suffers from bouts of vascular dementia.

"The way Cissy is written, she's still functioning pretty well and concealing her dementia pretty well too," Collins said.

Cissy spends most of her time with friends and former colleagues Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Wilf (Billy Connolly).

She is also on the committee, headed by the demanding Cedric (Michael Gambon), for the House's annual concert celebrating Giuseppe Verdi's birthday.

The future of the retirement home depends on the funds raised by the Verdi gala, but the show is lacking a big-name star to draw in the benefactors.

That's where Maggie Smith's character Jean comes into the picture.

A new arrival at the home, Jean was the most celebrated soprano of her generation.

But her success came at the expense of her marriages, all four of them.

Her arrival upsets Reginald and it is up to Cissy to try and convince Jean, who hasn't sung in years, to star in the Verdi concert.

In a pivotal scene in the film, Cissy gets "bashed" with a bouquet of flowers by Jean.

"That Maggie Smith packs a punch," she laughed.

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly provides many of the laughs in the film as the randy Wilf, who can't help hitting on any female within a few metres' radius.

"It was hard, yes, sometimes (not to laugh)," Collins said.

"But also he was so sweet to me. I found it very touching. Wilf becomes like my defender, so that Michael Gambon's character doesn't tease me too much."

Ronald Harwood's play on which the film is based was inspired by the documentary Tosca's Kiss about the real-life home for retired opera singers that Verdi himself founded in Milan.

"There is this amazing scene in it where you see an old woman padding along a corridor in her dressing gown," said Collins.

"Someone says 'sing us an aria Sarah' and out of this little old lady comes the most fantastic beginning of an aria.

The notes go way up in the sky. It's beautiful."

Quartet opens on Boxing Day.