Judith Paris started dancing at the age of four and remembers being enraptured by “the pretty frocks, the attention and the applause” as a child. The idea of performing became more complex when she appeared in a school play at the age of fourteen playing “a sophisticated lady in a French comedy called Villa for Sale and realised what a joy it was being someone else. I don’t see myself as me, I see myself in terms of the parts I play.” She believes that this response probably isn’t typical of many actors, having more confidence being someone else than in putting herself forward.
After leaving the Royal Ballet School, Paris joined Gillian Lynne’s theatre company (Paris cites Lynne as the first great influence on her career) as a dancer, where she remained for about three years. “We made three movies, including Cliff Richard’s Wonderful Life. Our musicals included a lovely one based on Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors in which I played a prostitute opposite Howard Keel and The Match Girls, based on the 1888 match workers strike, which was the first ‘kitchen sink’ musical.” While appearing in The Match Girls, Paris met Ken Russell, her second great influence, who asked her to dance as Isadora Duncan in a dream sequence in a television film based on the great dancer’s life. This led to Russell asking her to audition for the role of the tragic Elizabeth Siddal in Dante’s Inferno, opposite Oliver Reed as Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Paris insists that her casting as Rossetti’s wife and muse had nothing to do with acting ability. “Ken did it facially and I did look extraordinarily like Elizabeth Siddal. I saw Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ in the Tate and thought, ‘That’s me!’ It wasn’t about talent; Ken didn’t care if I could act or not. I did a screen test and I told him, ‘I’ve never acted apart from at school and a few lines in musicals and I don’t have any training.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. I’ll make your performance in the editing room!’ I was thrown from being a dancer to playing opposite Oliver Reed on the BBC, which was one giant step for mankind! It doesn’t usually happen that way. Ken taught me how to act on screen and how to minimalise and do close ups, which is very hard.” Paris has appeared in eight of Russell’s films (including The Devils alongside Vanessa Redgrave, who is “ extremely generous and so talented it hurts”) and he directed her first one-woman show Weill and Lenya.