Page last updated at 08:57 GMT, Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Working with a Hollywood legend

The director Robert Altman has died in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Described by many as "the actors' director" he was renowned for casting large ensemble pieces and the maverick way in which he made his movies.

Teresa Churcher, who worked with Altman on his 2001 Oscar-winning film Gosford Park, describes what it was like to be cast and work in one of his most successful films.

I finally thought that my agent had gone mad when he rang me to say that Robert Altman would like to meet me to talk about a film he was making.

At the very least I thought well there must a new casting director in town I'd never heard of called Robert Altman.

Teresa Churcher photo courtesy Nick Gregan
Theresa Churcher was originally offered a three-line part

Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be sitting on a couch in a hotel room in Kensington talking to the Robert Altman.

After a long chat, where I don't remember much of what we talked about because I was quite nervous, I got sent the script for Gosford Park and offered the part of Bertha. A part only three lines long.

I guess I was disappointed but quickly realised that it's not often that you offered a role in a Robert Altman film, so of course I took it.

A few weeks later Altman's PA rang me and said that he wanted to have another chat with me. Again I went along to the hotel in Kensington.

The producer said Bob had had a rethink and that he'd like me to take a bigger part in the film. They were going to merge two characters, Bertha and Maureen, which would mean I'd be on set for about six weeks instead of having just three lines.

I remember not really grasping the importance of what he'd just said because he looked at me and repeated. "Do you realise this means you will be with us for six weeks instead of just a few days?"

Then the reality of it hit me. Six weeks making a Robert Altman film! I remember leaving the hotel and skipping across to Queensway tube station.

There were no real rehearsals, rather script meetings where we'd meet, read through characters and learn as much about our characters and the period as possible.

About three or four weeks later we started filming at Coppertone studios in south London.

There was always a queue of people wanting to talk to him and he would make time for each of them

Gosford Park is about a weekend at an English country house where a group of rich Britons (and the odd American) gather for a weekend of pheasant shooting. A murder occurs after a dinner party and it becomes a kind of whodunit.

Though I always remember Altman being slightly irritated with the film being called a "whodunit" as it was mostly a piece of the British class system. He was more adamant that it was a "who-cares-whodunit".

On set Altman was very calm. He always let the actors have as much space they needed with their parts, much to the chagrin of the script supervisor whose job it is to make sure that during every take, we said the same dialogue as before and stuck to the script.

He had a wonderful childlike enthusiasm for film making and a great love of actors. I remember there was always a queue of people wanting to talk to him and he would make time to talk to every one of them.

Robert Altman with BAFTA award
Altman won the 2001 award for British Film of the Year for Gosford Park

We started filming Gosford Park in the April and the film opened the London Film Festival that November which is an incredibly short time for a film to be finished in. It was a wonderful social time of parties and soirees.

I met him earlier this year, before he won the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, when he invited me to BAFTA to see a screening of his latest, and now last film, A Prairie Home Companion, which I loved.

About his Oscar, he said that the Academy Awards board had "simply looked around for the oldest about and found him!" That sardonic humour which had become one of his trademarks hadn't been blunted.

It was a great privilege to have worked with him and I will truly miss him and treasure all the fantastic memories.

His legacy was his life. His life was his films and his family.

Teresa Churcher was speaking to Robert Coxwell of Have Your Say


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