Ann-Margret has done and seen it all, but as she prepares to celebrate her 82nd birthday this month, the flame-haired entertainer shows no signs of slowing down — literally. She still owns and rides a lavender motorcycle, in fact, and she’s about to release her first true rock ‘n’ roll record, the aptly titled Born to Be Wild. A collection of covers of classics from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the album finds her reuniting with her Tommy co-star Pete Townshend (on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”) and her State Fair co-star Pat Boone (on the jazz standard “Teach Me Tonight”). Elsewhere, the icon collaborates with everyone from Joe Perry and Rick Wakeman, to the Stray Cats and the Fuzztones, to Cliff Richard and Paul Shaffer, to the Oak Ridge Boys and the late Mickey Gilley.
Ahead of the release of Born to Be Wild (her first LP in more than a decade), Ann-Margret chats with Yahoo Entertainment about her 60-year career — a conversation covering, among other things, that time she performed at President Kennedy’s final birthday party, how many times she had to shoot Tommy’s notorious baked beans scene, whether she has issues with being cast as the mother of someone only two years younger than her in that Ken Russell film, why she dyed her hair red, and why her dance moves caused controversy in the ‘60s. Suffice to say, this woman still rocks.
Yahoo Entertainment: Born to Be Wild is your first album of all rock songs. This feels full-circle, because when you first hit the scene, you were hyped as the “female Elvis” or “female Eddie Cochran” — a rebel, a rocker girl. Why was now, at age 81, the right time for you to rock out like this?
Ann-Margret: I just felt like doing it! [laughs] I just keep on pushing. And I love rock ‘n’ roll. … It’s always been inside of me.
You were even riding motorcycles back in the day…
Yes, and I still do!
That is awesome. I imagine when you were first riding as a young girl, that was not as common as it is now.
That’s right. I didn’t know about any woman that would ride a motorcycle. But I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and mother and I and my Uncle Calle lived with Mormor, my mother’s mother. Uncle Calle had a beautiful, big motorcycle, and one day I hopped on the back of his bike and we went to Norway and it was so incredible. We looked to the right and it was the mountains, and then we looked to the left and it was the fjords. I’ll never forget that. And of course. I had to have a motorcycle after that.
And you’re still riding. You own a purple motorcycle, right?
Oh, yes. Roger [Smith, Ann-Margret’s husband and manager of 50 years, who died in 2017], he really got so nervous: He sold his motorcycle and he said to me, “Want to sell yours?” I said, “No way! No way am I going to do that!” I love speed. I love a bit of danger. I love being free and the breeze and everything. What can I say? I’m a little crazy.
You were born to be wild — hence your album title! This record features quite a rock ‘n’ roll who’s who, but I definitely want ask about the Pete Townshend collaboration on “Bye Bye Love,” because the Who’s Tommy is one of my favorite movie musicals ever. I loved you in it, and you were up for an Oscar for that role. Is that how you and Pete first met?
I first met him in 1974 in London. I remember going to see him with paper and pencil in hand. I wanted to find out all about [Tommy’s characters] — especially about Nora, the mother. And of course, I still have those notes. I had not spoken to him since then, but when I spoke with him again, it was like we’d never parted!
What kind of research did you do to get inside Nora’s head for that role?
Well, just talking about her. She was quite complicated. Pete was funny because he said something about how I just couldn’t be the mother in real life, because my age was not that different from Roger [Daltrey]!
You were literally only two years older than Roger. I interviewed Roger Daltrey a couple of years ago, and he joked that “it was very difficult to keep it in perspective” that you were supposed to be his mom.
Ha! That’s cute.
Did you mind being cast as the mother of someone basically your own age? You were only 34 at the time.
Oh, no, of course not! We had a great time. … I was not upset at all. I’m an actress.
Well, you certainly committed to character in that iconic baked beans scene. I saw the movie as a kid on cable TV and that scene scared me so much, because I thought it was blood, like in Carrie. I didn’t realize at first that it was just red beans and sauce.
Oh no! I hope your mother or father was there to explain!
Yes, my mom explained that scene to me. She didn’t explain Tina Turner’s Acid Queen scene to me, though, which scared me even more! But I love the film and have seen it so many times since. So, how many times did you have to shoot that beans sequence?
Well, you know, they kept talking about it. They kept building the wood, the slide. And [director] Ken Russell wanted me to look up and not see anything scary, just be looking up. So, that’s what I tried to do. And it was very interesting, when the first group [of beans] came down — it threw me back a few feet! Once it came down, there was no way that I could do it from the very beginning again, until I washed my hair and got a brand-new outfit. I went through three catsuits! We did it on Friday and Saturday, and then two days later, on a Monday, we had to go back to it, with all that stuff that was still on the floor. And I went in and looked around and all of the crew had [wading] hip boots on! And of course, I couldn’t wear hip boots; that would not have been right. But I loved doing it. Ken, during every take, he had [the music] blaring really loud, and I had a ball.
It didn’t turn you off baked beans forever? I don’t know if I’d ever be able to look at a can of Heinz after that.
Actually, no, I was OK with it. I know, I know — that surprised me too! [laughs]
Were the three catsuits ruined forever, or were you able to get the stains out?
Oh, no, they were out to lunch. [laughs] They were gone.
You’ve done so much with your life. When you look back on your career, what is your proudest achievement?
I think the fact that I went to Vietnam in ‘66 and ‘68. In ‘66, I received this letter. It contained 3,000 signatures of men and women working [starts to get choked up, pauses] … I mean, it’s so hard for me to talk about it. I always want to say the right thing. So, anyway, this letter said they wanted me to come and perform. And boy, was I ready! Finally, this was something I could do that would help in some way, even if for just a couple of hours — to do a [USO] show over there. Being that this was the government, it took a while, but in a couple of months, I was over there.
I can tell you’re getting emotional just talking about this. It must have been an intense experience.
I love my guys. I love the gals too, the nurses. Over the years, I have received letters from so many men and women [in the military]. I don’t take this lightly.
Were you scared to go to Vietnam?
Oh, no! Not at all. They wouldn’t let me get hurt. Are you kidding me?
Was there any controversy over you going there? Obviously it was an unpopular war that was dividing the country at that time.
Well, no. You see, I did not go there for political reasons. I went there for them [the troops]. That’s why I went.
You’re an award-winning actress, singer, dancer, humanitarian — at least a quadruple-threat. After all of these achievements, did the “sex symbol” tag ever bother you? You’re obviously so much more than that.
No, it never bothered me. I mean, if a guy comes up to you and says they think you’re sensual, well, thank you! [laughs] Thank you so much!
I guess why I ask is sometimes when a woman is labeled a sex symbol or bombshell — whether it’s you, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, whoever — some people don’t pay as much attention as they should to the quality of that woman’s actual work.
Well, I guess we all had to get older. … I don’t know how this all happened, but I’m still ready to go. I’m just ready for anything. You know, I’m an only child. And I was raised in reality. When I went to Los Angeles, I had a meeting with my mother and father in the kitchen. That’s where we had all of our meetings — the big, serious conversations. … And I told them was going to be known as “Ann-Margret” and drop my last name, Olsson, so that they would not have to see bad things printed about me. I loved my parents so much, and I wanted to make them proud so much, all my life, so I didn’t want anything to upset them. And I know Daddy loved to look at those movie magazines at the time. He said, “Oh, no, no, I only look at the pictures!” And I said, “Daddy, please don’t read what they say, because sometimes it’s just not very nice.”
Was the Hollywood press unkind to you back in the day?
Just a couple of times. … But the gossip media back then was very powerful. I just didn’t read the stuff. If someone would tell me, “Oh, boy, there’s a bad thing in the papers,” I would say, “Fine, I won’t read it.”
It seems like you did a great job of keeping your private life private. How did you manage that? Many stars at your level of fame — I once again bring up a very obvious peer, Marilyn Monroe — were not able to escape that scrutiny.
Well, [privacy] was very, very important to me. … I had such an incredible support system with my mother and father and aunts and uncles and friends. You know, I have had friends for 60 years. And I don’t believe [Marilyn] had that support system. I had never heard of her having a big support system. I think that was just extremely sad.
Since we are on the subject of Marilyn Monroe, I know you sang for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party the year after Marilyn did. That was in May 1963 — what turned out to be Kennedy’s final birthday.
Yes, I was, what — 21 or something? Wow. And the nerve of me! I sang “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” and I have no idea why! You would have to ask my 21-year-old self. [laughs] And then afterwards, we were invited to an ambassador’s house for a party, and I sat next to [JFK] and he was always a gentleman. I also met Bobby, his brother. I had a great time. Everybody was a gentleman.
Speaking of gentlemen, another duet partner on Born to Be Wild is the squeaky-clean Pat Boone, on “Teach Me Tonight.” This was another reunion of sorts, because you two worked together in State Fair in 1962.
Yeah, I still get a kick out of the fact that when that movie came out, the press said I was nibbling on his left shoulder. Oh, that was a big deal in 1962!
Well, were you? Was there any nibbling going on?
I mean, sort of. Maybe! [laughs] It was like a kiss and a nibble.
That was a different time. Things that raised eyebrows or hackles then would be no big deal now. Is there anything else you did back then that was considered scandalous?
Oh, yeah: the way that I moved! What’s funny is I just moved the way the music made me move. I remember [the press] saying that I “moved like Elvis,” but believe it or not, I had not seen E.P. [Elvis Presley] perform before I did Viva Las Vegas. That’s just how the music affects me. When I was 4 years old, I was moving like that! … And the music did make us both move in the same ways.
So, what is the biggest misunderstanding about you? You had this reputation or image of being a “bad girl,” but obviously that wasn’t really the case. You had a stable upbringing, this 50-year marriage…
Well, I did end up with orange hair! … I started out with dark, dark, dark brown hair. But for the very first movie at Paramount, Pocketful of Miracles, they wanted to lift my hair color so that the lights would shine brighter, and so my hair would shine brighter because the lights could pick up the lighter color.
Why didn’t you just go blonde?
Oh, no, no. There was a fire in the red.
True. But there’s a reputation that redheads have bad tempers, or are naughty or feisty…
Well, I think everything has been said, whatever people wanted to say. But I’m still a redhead.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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