When director Michael Radford advertised for actors who would work for nothing in his low-budget strip club feature Dancing at the Blue Iguana he was surprised who turned up for the auditions.
It is not unheard of for a stripper to model herself on a celebrity. But this particular woman, strutting round the pole, in the downbeat LA strip joint, did bear - or bare - an unusually striking resemblance to Daryl Hannah. Blade Runner, Splash! and Wall Street were back in the Eighties, but surely the woman some saw as Marilyn Monroe’s successor had not been reduced to taking her clothes off for a living. It couldn’t be the real Daryl Hannah. But it was.
Hannah is just one of a troupe of Hollywood actresses stripping for Michael Radford’s latest movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana, and some got into character by performing in real strip clubs.
Bruised by a long battle with Miramax over his thriller B Monkey, Radford decided to make a low-budget film without a screenplay, and advertised for actors who were prepared to work for nothing and create their own characters.
"The amazing thing was that all these famous actors turned up," says the erudite, bearded director, who started making films while teaching at Edinburgh’s Stevenson College. He was born in India, but spent much of his childhood in Cairnryan and Dunkeld and worked as stage manager at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, before going to film school and directing Another Time, Another Place, White Mischief and Il Postino.
An improv too far
He claims Hannah "forced herself" on him. They got on so well he subsequently directed her in the West End production of The Seven Year Itch. It was one of the actresses who suggested the setting of a strip club, an obvious metaphor for characters stripped bare, and the cast spent months improvising characters and storyline.
Another of the leading actresses was Jennifer Tilly, but the star of Bound and Bullets Over Broadway had some serious thinking to do before committing to the film. "Michael did sit us down and say everybody had to be naked," says Tilly, perhaps the fastest-talking actress in Hollywood.
"I was actually off doing another movie, ironically a Disney movie, where I was playing the kind of stripper who doesn’t take off her clothes or really do much of anything... A lot of us had to sit down and examine whether we wanted everything hanging out, and we decided we did."
Only after filming was over did she discover Radford had considered sacking her because she got on so badly with the rest of the cast, at least initially.
"At my first ‘improv’ (improvisation session), I came in and I was kicking the walls and swearing and screaming." It seems Tilly had difficulty shaking off her aggressive alter ego, she was dismissive of the improvisation process and believes Radford thought she was really like that. The director admits Tilly took time to fit in.
Climbing up the slippery pole
"Only one out of ten strippers does really good pole work," she says. "And a lot of them just strut around and pose and harass the customers. I was sitting at the edge of the stage once and a stripper came up to me. She’s like, ‘Well?’ And I just said, ‘What?’ She goes, ‘I just danced for you - aren’t you going to give me money?’ I thought, that’s brilliant. That’s what Jo (Tilly’s character) is going to do. She’ll be the very bad stripper who harasses the customers."
Tilly was not the only one getting seriously into character. "We would go to the strip clubs and some of us - not myself, because I’m a very tidy, prudish sort of person - would get up and actually strip," she says. "So the lines became blurred about being an actress. The question is, if you’re in a strip club and you’re going round the pole and you don’t have anything on, are you a stripper or are you an actress?"
The film’s official production notes suggest she was up there with the rest of them. "Here I was crawling around on my hands and knees, scooping up a handful of single dollar bills," they quote her as saying.
Tilly explains there were times when the actresses would be practising in one corner, still partly dressed at least, and the club would open and a professional stripper would be naked on another stage. "And all the men were watching us because apparently they were all wondering when our clothes were going to come off... Someone felt sorry for me and they threw a wad of dollar bills on stage.
"The lines became very blurred for a lot of us, because we were hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard, we were shopping where the strippers shopped, we hung out with the strippers, some of us were making money stripping.
"It was very hard for a lot of us to shake the characters. Actually Sheila Kelley installed a stripper pole in her house and she’s teaching stripping classes to all the housewives... And Daryl Hannah ended up making a documentary about strippers."
"Every stripper has suffered childhood sexual abuse"
Dancing at the Blue Iguana attempts to reflect the diversity of people in strip clubs - one character’s guilty secret is poetry. Professional strippers appear in the film, and one of the major supporting roles was played by David Amos, who ran the Bare Elegance club.
"I was going to Bare Elegance," says Tilly, "and I thought, you know, you’re so prejudiced, just because people are in this seedy world, doesn’t mean that they are seedy, and he’s just an actor and he’s trying to make ends meet and he’s actually a really nice fellow... I turned on the TV one day and there was a story that he’d been arrested for contract killings... So we had a very real element."
The improvisation sessions were boiled down into a shooting script, but, although the framework of scenes was retained, the written dialogue was abandoned in an attempt to reintroduce some spontaneity.
Far from being titillated by the experience, Radford hated the clubs. "It’s a fairly dark area of life," he says. "I don’t think there’s a stripper working, that I’ve met, that sooner or later won’t confess to you that she’s been sexually abused as a child.
"They’ll say all sorts of things - you know they’re stripping to get through college, they’re stripping for this, they’re stripping for that, but actually it’s all down to taking control over the abuse that you’ve received as a child... It’s much more depressing actually than we showed it... What I tried to make a film about, was how they actually created a community."
It is a community some of his actresses seemed keen enough to embrace.