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Sean Hepburn Ferrer: Audrey Hepburn, Mother, Actress and Humanitarian

Exclusive interview by Karen Beishuizen

I am a huge admirer of Audrey Hepburn: She has been my Hero and Idol since I was 10 years old and saw “Roman Holiday” for the first time. Her son Sean describes his mother in such a loving way, exactly how I imagined Audrey to be. He has written a book about his mother and organizes exhibitions about her life. He currently resides part time in the US, Italy, and Spain with his wife.

KB: Your mother, the late Audrey Hepburn, was, and still is, one of the most beloved actresses and humanitarians: What is your recollection of growing up with such a famous mother?

That was one of the greatest gifts she gave my brother and me to grow us up in a normal environment. We went to the public school. We went to class with the sons of the butcher and shop owner in the French Lycée in Rome.

She actually stopped her career to raise us. She felt that if she wanted to have children, she couldn’t work at the same time. Films take a long time. You are away sometimes 2 or 3 months if you are an actor. If you are a producer up to 6 months. As an actor, films take 8 to 10 weeks: rehearsals, costume fittings and all of that. So, she stopped acting and became a full-time mum. So, the great gift was that I had a real mum fetching me at school, taking me to buy books and socks, walking into the city centre and taking a cab home. She would get up with a sleepy head in the morning and help us finish our homework, prepare for a test or exam.

That was our mother for the first 14 years of my life. I started to view her films in the attic of our home., In those days there were no VHS, DVDs or streaming. Actors received a 16mm print of their films. We had an old projector. So I hung up a sheet in the attic of the house in Switzerland. And that is how I discovered her films. That wonderful flickering sound of those old projectors, the single speaker in the cover of the projector. I used scotch tape to splice and repair any breakage. We had a very normal mum, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized she was famous. But it wasn’t really until she died that we all realized to what an extend she had touched the nerve of her fans through her humanitarian work, her last chapter. She called it the most important chapter of her life.

KB: Did you ever go with her on sets when she was filming and how was that?

I did. I was as a little boy on the set of “Two for the Road” and a couple other films. And then I was on the set of “Robin and Marian” when we sort of threw her out of the house as she was going through a bad divorce and needed to be with her chums doing something else to distract her. I was also on the set of “Bloodline” because Terence (Young) has sort of been a Godfather to me and he gave me my first job in the industry as a production assistant on a big war film called “Inchon” about the Korean War, the same year that “Apocalypse Now” was made. And then ultimately, I worked with her on “They All Laughed” where I was Peter Bogdanovich’s assistant. He sort of used me to get to her for her to do the part, to play the role in the film.

KB: What did she teach you that still sticks with you today?

I think that is a very long list. You learn things which are fact based but you also learn a lot of things instinctively. But surely as far as professionally – She was a real professional and was polite, nice to the crew, always on time. I grew up in this industry looking at people like Jimmy Stewart, Billy Wilder as uncle Jimmy or Uncle Billy. It becomes a part of you — what people are talking about, but I think the most valuable lesson, and I was already an adult when she started working for Unicef, was the compassion, the responsibility we have to each other which are things we are still talking about today. Although she wasn’t the first Unicef Ambassador, she was and is probably the best remembered humanitarian from that era. She was campaigning and forewarning a lot of the issues we still talk about today. Those, I think, are the most valuable lessons. If you read “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit”, a sort of whispered spiritual biography about her life and which I wrote soon after she passed away, you will find a lot of those lessons in there.

KB: Your mother was a UNICEF Ambassador: Did you and your half-brother Luca ever go on trips with her?

No, we did not. She purposely believed that you have to live your life expanding circles at first, take care of yourself, have a life, then take care of your family and children. After that is done, you can finally expand to include others. My brother was young and still studying. He was only 22 when she passed away. I was 32. We did not go on trips with her. We had our lives and saw each other for Christmas, and we witnessed how exhausting, both emotionally and physically, this all was on her. She spent a lifetime working. And we would tell her: “Now that you are comfortable, why don’t you take some time off?” She would reply: “This is important work. Next year I’ll take a break”

KB: Describe your mother in 3 words.

That is interesting because I get very often asked why she is still so beloved, how she crossed so many generations. She sort of replaced James Dean on the teenagers’ closet door. What makes her still so beloved today? I think the answer, is that we consider her ‘One of Us’. Those are the 3 words in answer to your question. What I mean by that is that we perceive her as the girl from across the landing who goes out into the world in her little black dress, and we are rooting for her. So, we see her as ‘One of Us’ rather than one of Hollywood’s untouchable superstars.

KB: You are a film producer yourself?

I started as crew, I was in production, I was an assistant director, then line producer for others and right when I was transitioning to become a producer for myself or at least starting to try to be one, she passed away and I sort of caught the humanitarian baton in the air and continued her extraordinary legacy which she had left. I created a series of non-profits in Switzerland and The US and within Unicef and other organizations and I sort of stopped being a film producer as this was no longer a full-time career or a way to pay the rent. I have, nevertheless, continued over the years to do love projects and things that are meaningful to me. It really goes back to when I was a little boy and I dreamt about the power of cinema, what it means to have the attention of a few hundred people in a dark room all looking in the same direction. So, I continue to produce a few things which matter to me, but it cannot be the focus of my life because I have too many pots in the fire and only so many hours in the day.

KB: I heard there is an Audrey Hepburn Children Foundation?

There were foundations which we created in both Switzerland and the US and the Audrey Hepburn Society at Unicef and others. We are in the process of rethinking and restructuring all of that. We have our society in Switzerland which I run and which, for the time being, is the mothership. The US Foundation is no longer in existence. It’s a fast-evolving eco-system and you have to stay light on your feet.

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