GRETA SCACCHI, THE ITALIAN-BORN actress, is filming a scene for The Odyssey, NBC’s $30 million classical extravaganza (May 18 and 19). Scacchi, as Penelope, has just heard that her hero husband, who hasn’t phoned home since the Trojan War 20 years ago, is in fact alive, well and nearby. For the camera, Scacchi is simultaneously nervous, trembling, hopeful. She misses the guy, and you believe her.
Cut! The cameras stop, and so does Scacchi’s look of concern. In her opinion, she makes clear, Odysseus has spent far too many rosy-fingered dawns out of town without an alibi. “I would have hit him on the head with a rolling pin,” says Scacchi. “Odysseus was lured into the bed of Circe for five years. His justification is, he thought it was for five days. Five years wasted in that woman’s bed—you know, the one with the big [breasts].”
For American audiences, Scacchi, at 37, is one of those movie veterans whose name (or a version of it—correctly pronounced, it rhymes with khaki) is more familiar than her rèsumè. She played Harrison Ford’s lust object in Presumed Innocent, an ethereal artist in The Player, and came wrapped in period costume in such films as White Mischief, Jefferson in Paris, Emma and the HBO movie Rasputin, for which she won an out-standing supporting actress Emmy last year. She figures that neither directors nor audiences know quite what to make of her. “People try to pigeonhole me,” says Scacchi. “They say I only play colonial women. I only play period pieces. I only do nude films. It’s really so boring.” Like many actresses, she struggles to find serious parts. “Greta has always been an intellectual type of person,” says her mother, Pamela Carsaniga. “But the fact is, she is also an attractive woman.”
Additionally, in recent years, Scacchi has lowered her profile by choice. While making Fires Within in 1990, she met actor Vincent D’Onofrio. “We were very passionately in love,” she says, “but it became impractical and incompatible or whatever. It was too rocky.” They split after two years, but not before the arrival of Leila, now 5. “I wasn’t expecting to become a single mother,” says Scacchi, “but nature took its course.” Mother and daughter settled into a cottage in Sussex, England, and a lower-key, but far from inactive, life. “I was busy all day long,” says Scacchi, sounding like any bewildered first-time mom. “Everything I did in the day was destroyed in the next minute. You make the food, it gets eaten. You tidy up, it messes. You clean the baby again. I had to tell myself that if I got back to square one by the end of the day, then it was a success.”
Such domesticity was in contrast to her own gypsy childhood. Born in Milan to Luca Scacchi Gracco, an art dealer and painter, and his British wife, Pamela, a former dancer at the Lido in Paris, Greta first moved to Sussex with her mother after her parents separated when she was 3. Even as a kid, Scacchi noticed differences between the two cultures.” The British are more guided in their heads,” she says, “the Italians with their hearts.” When Scacchi was 15, her mother remarried, and the family—she has older twin brothers—moved to Australia, where her stepfather, Giovanni Carsaniga, took a university post teaching Italian.
After high school, Scacchi tried college but dropped out after a month and worked as a jillaroo—Australian slang for a shepherdess. Later she returned to Europe and tried modeling (“At the time, it was so humiliating,” she says) before enrolling in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, from which she graduated in 1981. She auditioned for any theater available—she was rejected for one role, she recalls, because, as the director told her, “you don’t look the type of person who would help load a truck”—before landing a breakthrough film part in the 1983 India epic Heat and Dust. She also turned down the Basic Instinct role that eventually made Sharon Stone famous but says she has no regrets. “I thought it was horrifying,” she says. “It was so offensive to my morality.”
Despite Odysseus’s lame excuses, Scacchi finds a worthwhile moral in Homer’s story line. “All that travel, all those battle scars, and he comes home to reclaim what is most important to him,” she says. “It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz—’I wanna go home. I’ll never go farther than my own backyard.’ ” It’s a lesson she herself has learned after years of rootlessness. “I never knew I was going to come back here,” Scacchi says of Sussex. “Here the butcher is friendly and the baker is friendly. The people know your child’s name. Now I don’t know how I would have survived without it.”
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Sussex