Sydney Penny began her career in acting as a child. Her early roles included parts in the mini-series The Thorn Birds (1983) and the Clint Eastwood western Pale Rider (1985). Before going on to have a big career in soap operas, Ms. Penny was chosen for the lead role in the film Bernadette (1988).
Excerpts of Ignatius Press Interview with Sydney Penny
Excerpts of Ignatius Press Interview with Sydney Penny
How old were you when you played in both films as Bernadette? Were they filmed back to back?
Sydney Penny: I was fifteen when we filmed Bernadette and eighteen when we shot the sequel, La Passion de Bernadette.
Why did you agree to play the main character in these two films?
SP: As an actor, it was a marvelous opportunity for me to play such a role and to be directed by one of France's most well respected directors. As a person, I wanted to be part of something that intended to tell a beautiful story honestly - a story of how a young woman, uneducated, unschooled in catechism, poor and sickly, needed only a willing heart to learn the truth. And that truth led her through adversity, loneliness, controversy, illness and even unto the moment of her death.
Was Bernadette shot on a location near Lourdes?
SP: We shot Bernadette in and around Lourdes, France in the dead of winter, 1987. We were unable to film at the actual site of the grotto in Massabielle because it has been so changed since Bernadette's time. Even the river has widened. We found a similar grotto not far away. All of the other locations were in neighboring small villages in the Pyrenees which were absolutely breaktakingly beautiful. We also shot some interiors in studio in Paris.
Describe the exact shooting locales for the film, and what the experience was like.
SP: The film was shot amid gorgeous French scenery. The Pyrenees are so majestic and in the winter covered in snow, it's like being in another world. The shoot was fantastic - quite different than an American shoot especially at lunch when they set up a huge tent no matter where we were, even perched in a cliff or in the middle of a field of sheep, set the tables with linen and china and served a four course meal with wine. Very French!
Have you been to Nevers to see the incorrupt body of Bernadette?
SP: We filmed La Passion de Bernadette in the convent where she lived out her life in Nevers, France. The sisters speak of Bernadette as if she were still among them, and in a way, she is. Bernadette was buried and exhumed three times as part of the canonization process. Each time she was exhumed she was exactly as she had been the last time, uncorrupted. The decision was made to build a glass coffin and leave her lying in state in the sanctuary, which is where she is today. Seeing her was very moving, so tiny and fragile; and it was probably the only time an actor has ever come face to face with the historical figure they were portraying.
Are you aware that Bernadette is the "official" film shown daily at the shrine of Lourdes?
SP: I am aware that Bernadette is the official film shown in Lourdes. Jean Delannoy set out to make a film that was historically accurate, with no distortions in the telling. Obviously the film need to be dramatic, but the story is moving enough without changing it arbitrarily as had been done before. I am pleased to be part of something that endures and hopefully illuminates and inspires those who visit Lourdes.
What do you think of the story of Lourdes and of St. Bernadette?
SP: The story of Bernadette and Lourdes seems almost incredible, living in these modern times. But many magnificent and incredible things happen everyday, we just have developed the habit of analyzing them into insignificance. Bernadette's story is a symbol of hope, an example of the power that one person's faith can have on the world.
How do you think modern audiences would benefit from seeing a film like this about St. Bernadette and the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes?
SP: The virtue of humility and the value of honesty are timeless. Bernadette spoke of what she saw simply as a lady in white - and faith is that pure, that simple. We sometimes trip ourselves up with intellectual, metaphysical questions. Sometimes you just have to trust and believe.
What does Bernadette have to say to today’s young people?
SP: Bernadette herself probably wouldn't have given any advice since she was convinced she knew nothing! It's good to remember that even as we strive in our lives and in our careers, that our successes are a reflection of the gifts we are divinely given; we ourselves can create nothing.
How did your perception of St. Bernadette change after you finished the two films?
SP: I think I came to know Bernadette the girl, Bernadette the postulant, Bernadette the person who had far more trials and tribulations than most anyone will ever deal with - illness, poverty, being the center of huge controversy - and yet sailed above it all by holding on to her convictions. And discovered a great spiritual treasure in her heart which she imparted to the world in the process.
Why do you think there is a resurgence of interest in films with an overtly spiritual theme?
SP: I simply think that people crave connection with that which is bigger than they are. Our post-modern, secular, humanist world has devalued man's spiritual side, and, in fact, anything that can't be seen through a microscope or quantified. In the world's desire to know more, we have lost the knowledge of who we really are, why we're here - not just how we got here, but why the life we lead and how we lead it matters.