Jane Seymour has lit up the big screen for decades. Audiences first swooned over her classic English features as the James Bond girl in Live and Let Die and later in Somewhere in Time, a sci-fi romance in which she played the love interest of actor Christopher Reeve. She has built a robust career headlining countless films, Broadway stage and TV productions, including Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. She’s also, at 67, the oldest woman to pose for Playboy magazine. Such distinctions aside, Seymour has cultivated serious passions beyond the entertainment world. She’s an accomplished author, fine artist, and jewelry designer for Kay Jewelers. But perhaps her most prized role is that of philanthropist. She spoke recently with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper at her home in Malibu about her close relationship with Reeve, and the mission and impact of her nonprofit, The Open Hearts Foundation, which she founded in 2010.
(Archived: interview with Playboy magazine’s founder Hugh Hefer)
Lia Martirosyan: Can you give us a little bit of history, starting with your relationship with Christopher Reeve?
Jane Seymour: Well, back in the very early ‘80s, I was cast to do a little movie called Somewhere in Time, with Chris. I met him at the audition, and apparently he met about 12 women, and he picked me, which was really flattering. I didn’t know that at the time, but I desperately wanted the role. I loved the role. I loved the movie, and I got lucky enough to work on it with him. We had a magical experience. We worked together in Michigan, on Mackinac Island, at the Grand Hotel. It was a period piece and a beautiful love story. There were no cars allowed on the island, so we were all issued bicycles. Time kind of stood still. Everything was slower. We all got to hang out. It was almost like summer camp.
Chris, of course, had his twin-engine plane there. It was completely illegal for either of us to fly in small airplanes. Needless to say, we would sneak off at 5 or 6 in the morning, when the light was still dark, on our bicycles, hide them under a tree, start up the engine and fly away. We had some crazy adventures. He used to take me sailing and bike riding. We were filming. We got along really well. We were both single at the time, and needless to say romance ensued. It was a magical summer. I’ve never forgotten it.
And then real life intervened. He found out he was about to have a child with his ex-girlfriend. So that was the end of that. We then segued into being best friends for the rest of our lives. He went on to have two children, I went on to get married and have four children, and my youngest child is called Kris, and Chris Reeve was his godfather, and the other twin, Johnny, was named after Johnny Cash, who was his godfather.
Chet Cooper: So you dated Johnny Cash as well?
Seymour: No. (laughter) No. Chris and I, it was very secret. We didn’t let anyone know. It wasn’t until shortly before he died when we had a long conversation, and he said that he’d told his children, and everyone was cool, and his wife Dana, of course, knew. She told me. But Dana and Chris and I and—I was married to James Keach at the time—became very close friends. When Chris was going to direct his first movie, I remember James was giving him lots of advice. I don’t remember the name of the book, but he gave him a book to read and said, “Chris, this is what you should read. This will really help.” We were very interested, because when we watched the movie, there was a reference to the book in the movie, so clearly he did read it.
We were both on Broadway together in different plays at one time. It was a magical relationship, really, until the day we lost him. I had long, long conversations about life with him. There was the good side, if you can see a good side to his disability, which was that he had all the time in the world to think and to really express himself. He didn’t have time for nonsense. He talked deeply about all kinds of things, so he was a wonderful person to talk to. And, of course, he was brilliant. And funny. (laughs)
Martirosyan: You mentioned making your home accessible.
Seymour: Well! When he came here to visit the first time, I was so thrilled. Like you, he came right in and across the threshold, right out here onto the balcony. As you can see, you can be in the entire top part of the house, where most everything happens. To go down by the pool, I ramped that whole area, so when you come to the front door, if you go left, it’s ramped all the way down to the lawn and right out to the ocean. Not in the ocean, but to look at the ocean. Ever since I got involved with Chris and his foundation, I’ve met a lot of amazing young people who are in chairs. I learned an enormous amount. They’re remarkable young adults.
One of them, I think he was four years old when he was in a car seat in his mother’s car, and there was a high-speed police chase. He’s still a vent-dependent quad. We helped him, and of course he got in by himself, too, into Chapman University, where he graduated in film. And then I met Scotty McGill when I did a series of paintings about women’s heart health. He was first in line to buy the original, so he owns the original of one of my favorite paintings ever of me on the beach in a red dress. Scotty runs Pistachio Farms. He was a young man in high school, a great high diver, hoping to head towards the Olympics. Unfortunately, the day he took one dive, the swim coach had allowed the synchronized swimmers to swim right underneath. That’s what happened to him. I believe he is vent-dependent as well.
(Archived: interview with Dean of Chapman University)
And then I met Jesse Billauer, who’s an amazing young surfer here in Malibu, and he’s just a total inspiration. I went to his wedding, which was a gas. (laughs) Nothing stops him. He started an organization called Life Rolls On. We honored him with the Open Heart. I think after Chris passed, they asked Jesse if he’d get involved with the American Paralysis Association. He does amazing things.
(Archived: interview with Jesse Billauer)
Seymour: Well, about eight or nine years ago when Kay Jewelers talked to me about doing jewelry, I said the most important thing was the message. I wanted to give back by selling the jewelry. They said they couldn’t do it through the jewelry, because it was a publicly traded company. The only way I could do it was if I wanted to have my own foundation, so I set up the Open Hearts Foundation. We wanted to highlight the amazing work and stories of people who’d been through a challenge in life and had taken that as an opportunity to make a difference for so many others. That’s very much what my mother would tell me. She said, “In life, everyone will have a challenge, everyone—some more than others, but all of us at some point. The natural instinct will be to close off your heart and not tell anyone, to keep it to yourself and isolate. If you do that, the information will go round and round and round, like a broken record, and you’ll never get it out of your system. The only thing you can do is to accept whatever it is. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, ever, to open up your heart and reach out to help someone else. The moment you do that you have purpose, and once you have purpose in life, then love and some kind of solution will come into your life, and you can grow from there.”
That’s how the Open Heart started. I interpreted that as a squiggle of the Open Heart, and then the wave that I’m wearing here, is two open hearts that connect. The wave is actually very symbolic for me. I wrote a book about this one. I always thought in life, whatever your circumstances, it’s like you’re in a body of water going in a general direction until that “Whoo-hoo!” moment, when you win the prize, make the team, fall in love, first kiss—whatever it is. And, of course, it comes down, and when it comes down, I always think of the wave as letting go of water it no longer needs. And as the wave continues its momentum, it crashes and touches the bottom, but it doesn’t stay there. It keeps moving upward. And as it comes back out of there, it’s had the highs, the lows, the letting go and the bruising.
But as it comes back up, if your heart and your mind are open, there is more water to connect to and to create a new wave. That’s what Open Hearts Waves is about. It’s my idea of people who connect, like I would say Christopher Reeve was a perfect example. He was not my family, but we were family. His heart was open. He connected to other people. And now my latest book is coming out next week, called The Road Ahead, which is all about moving forward in life. Once you’ve gone through this and had a purpose, now what do you do with it? Where do you go? Where does it take you?
Martiroysan: That’s a pretty illustration, the wave.
Seymour: Yes. (laughs) I tend to dance as I’m doing it. I just came back from New Zealand. I was in a Maori tribal hut where they never have strangers. It’s the real deal. It’s not for tourists at all. I was invited personally. I looked at the Maori carvings and all the drawings, and I said, “Wow, that looks a lot like my Open Heart!” They looked at my Open Heart and said, “That looks a lot like Maori!”
Seymour: So we were exchanging ideas. The artist there did a beautiful Maori drawing that tells my story, my trials and tribulations, the crosses, the stuff I had to go through to get here, the growth and the open end. In the Maori custom, you always have an open end. You’re going forward. Which is very much my philosophy, and I think yours, too, isn’t it, with the magazine?
Martirosyan: That’s true.
Seymour: Of course we made Road Ahead beautiful necklaces as well, which I would be wearing right now, except that somebody hid them away, and I can’t find them. (laughs)
Martirosyan: Please tell us a bit about the foundation.
Seymour: The Open Hearts Foundation, we’ve usually honored three to four people every year and have had one main fundraiser where we told their stories. Our mission is as much to tell the story and to inspire people, to help them deal with challenges in their lives, and find a way they uniquely can go forward and encourage them to help others and, in so doing, help themselves. It’s not like other charities where you have one cause and everyone raises a ton of money on one night, and that’s it. We’re very much like an accelerator. We look at organizations, and then the board decides on one we feel the story behind it is very powerful, and we’ve tested it out and made sure it’s tried and true, and it fits all the important elements of where the funds are going and what they’re doing with it and their ability to grow. We pick from there, and we have our event.
Martirosyan: Is it all for nonprofits?
Seymour: A hundred percent nonprofit, and we’re pass-through. It goes right through.
Cooper: Do you know how much you were able to raise this last time?
Seymour: I don’t want to get it wrong, but I know we raised in excess of $300,000, which was really good. I don’t know how it all worked out, but I think that might be before whatever the expenses were. I haven’t seen the final accounting. But I do know it was probably the best one we had yet, so I’m sure everyone will do better than we were able to do in the past. Unfortunately, last year we didn’t have an event. We had to deal with a bunch of legal—
I don’t want to quote that until—but I will give you a quote that is quotable.
Martirosyan: Do you always do a three-day event?
Seymour: No, that was the first time. Normally we’ve done one event here at the house, but it wasn’t cost-effective because it cost so much to put up a tent and have everything done here. So we tried something different this year. The SLS Hotel Beverly Hills was very kind, and they gave us a room at a really good rate. And, of course, more people could come because it was in town, so it was easier. I didn’t think it would be that popular, but for substantially more money, a bigger donation, you could go to that event, go to a cocktail party the night before, and then come here for lunch the next day, as a sort of thank you rather than a fundraiser, and that worked really well. So we had about 80 or 90 people who came the final luncheon. Most people came to the main event.
Martirosyan: It was beautiful and very well done. How did you get the piano in here?
Seymour: Expensively. (laughter) They said, “Yes, it’s OK, we can bring in a piano!” “Oh, great! How?” I have no idea how they got that piano in. But I think they get pianos into strange places all the time. Piano people seem to know what they’re doing. And then you have to have it retuned for hours. The moving of the piano is one thing—
Martirosyan: Isn’t that fun, to listen to it being retuned?
Seymour: Yes. I think next time no piano. I think the guys with the guitars are just fine. But it was spectacular, wasn’t it?
Martirosyan: But the piano was a special touch. That was nice.
Seymour: That was wonderful. And then of course, when everyone left, we were still all playing the piano and people were singing. It was fantastic. It was great.
Martirosyan: Very nice. Do you want to do the video?
Seymour: What did you think of Global Mobility USA?
Martirosyan: Chet’s known David Richard for years.
Cooper: We both go to the United Nations’ CRPD conventions.
(Buzz: UN’s CRPD)
Seymour: He’s a level man. He’s very shy.
Martirosyan: He’s so funny!
Seymour: Isn’t he the sweetest? And then Drew Plotkin came in to help him along.
Martirosyan: I hadn’t known he was that shy until he got up on stage, and he was—
Seymour: —painfully shy! (laughter)
Martirosyan: That was quite funny! (laughs) Do people reach out to you to nominate people? Or do you seek them out?
Seymour: In every which way. Of course, people always come to us as well. And then we look to find a good balance and to also find organizations. It always helps if there’s a celebrity attached as well.
Martirosyan: The story about your mother and how the Open Hearts came to be. That was beautiful.
Seymour: The idea of the Open Hearts really came to me from the way I saw my mother deal with life. She’d survived World War II in a Japanese internment camp, and by the time she had me and my two sisters, she would always tell us that in life there would always be challenges, and when there were challenges, most people would just close off their hearts and keep it to themselves. And if they isolated like that, the problems would just go round and round like a broken record, and they’d never get through it. So she said to us, “The most difficult thing to do in life is to accept. And once you can accept, open your heart and reach out to help someone else. There will always be someone worse off than you. And if you can have a purpose, if you can help someone else,” she said, “it will help you. You will learn to heal, and love will come in your life.”
So I interpreted that as two hearts that were open and connected, which turned into this image of the open heart. I did this originally as paintings and then a piece of jewelry in honor of my mother when I did Dancing with the Stars. Then all of a sudden I was asked to do it as a line of jewelry, and I said, “On the condition that we can a) tell the story, b) inspire other people, and c) raise money and raise interest in people who are doing amazing things that aren’t necessarily known.”
So we started at the same time as the Open Heart Foundation. What we do is, we find different organizations we like. We tell their stories. We have their founders tell their stories. We honor them all at the same time so the same crowd gets to see people from different organizations and charities, so it spreads. And, of course, we raise money for them, but more than anything, we raise awareness, and we help them grow. So the idea is we accelerate them. And some of our past honorees have gone on to expand. One of them was doing dance therapy in children’s hospitals, and I think she started out with about three or four of them. I think since she got her award, she’s now in 15 or 16 hospitals. So it continues to grow. Once you’re part of the Open Heart Foundation family, you’re always there.
This year we honored Global Mobility, who I know you know a lot about. They’re remarkable with what they’re doing, and I really love them, especially since I have a history with a lot of friends who live in chairs. When I saw the footage of what happens in Third World countries to people who have never sat upright, let alone have any kind of mobility other than being carried from place to place, I mean that spoke to us and we said, “Global Mobility has to be one of them.” So this year we had that. We had Lyme disease, which is an epidemic with no cure. It’s unbelievable. They say right now it’s worse than AIDS in this country. So that was a very unusual one.
Then we had Exceptional Minds. I have a lot of friends and there are a lot of people who are on the spectrum with autism and Asperger’s, and these people are extraordinary. They are filmmakers. They were at the top of their game in post-production, and they managed to get not necessarily high-functioning autistic young men and women, but ones who were very keen to learn how to do animation and post-production. They trained them for three years. They also teach them the five pillars: how to say hello and explain who you are, how to be as sociable as you can be, enough to be able to hold down the job and then perform the tasks. It’s fantastic, because 99 percent of young people with autism end up living in a back room usually staring at a screen of some sort.
So it was a very, very strong and exciting year. And of course, now we’re thinking about what we’re going to do next year.
Cooper: Would you say more about your relationship with Christopher Reeve?
Chris was very much my inspiration for the Open Hearts Foundation, because there was a man who, as he said, needed two people just to be on top of his bodily functions 24/7, just to stay alive. And yet somehow he could move mountains and make a huge difference in the world. Nothing stopped him. He just had an insurmountable spirit. He could very easily have sat back and just said, “Why me?” and felt sorry for himself, but he didn’t. He went out of his way to be internationally active and to change the world as we know it, not just for people with spinal injuries but in every spectrum of medicine, including stem cells.
I think he also really let people know what life was like—you know, some people are afraid to talk to people who are in a chair, they just don’t know. They were afraid to talk to Chris. And he’d say, “Just show people. Just have them come around. I can’t turn my neck.” (laughs) And stupid little things like that. And then, of course, he was so excited when he came to my house here because everything’s ramped. The joy in his face! He said, “You don’t know how exciting it is to be able to come into a home and be able to maneuver everywhere by myself and to have that sense of independence and feel like I can be part of whatever’s going on here!”
Cooper: I love the idea of your foundation being a catalyst to help good nonprofits grow. They have a mission, but you have to raise money constantly for the mission. It’s like another world.
Seymour: Oh, yes. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. Everyone begged me not to do it. But I think our mission is as much to talk about it, as it is to raise the money for it.
Cooper: Do you help with that, with the talking?
Seymour: Opening up opportunities, yes. The Entertainment Industry Foundation is fantastic, because a lot of people in the industry want to give charitably, but they don’t know where to give. So they’re rather like us. We do it with three different organizers. They do it sometimes with 20 or 30 different organizations that benefit.
The Robin Hood Foundation does the same thing on a much bigger level with Wall Street. They get the multi-billion dollars bigwigs, select the charities, vet them, take the money and distribute it.
Cooper: You said Robin. I remember the last time I spoke to Robin Williams was in Irvine with Christopher Reeve —weren’t you there too?
Seymour: Yes, Robin was always there. Do you know anything about Augie Nieto, who started Life Fitness? Augie is the guru of all—he started a company called Life Fitness, which is still everywhere, with its workout.
(Archived: interview with Augie Nieto)
Cooper: In Corona del Mar? The Eclipse machine he built?
Seymour: Yes. He built everything, gyms—
Cooper: And he has ALS.
Seymour: Yeah. James has finished a film about him. It’s just won an award. You saw that film about Glenn Campbell?
Seymour: He had Alzheimer’s. And this film is phenomenal that James has just finished. You should contact him about that.
Martirosyan: We will.