At 75, Ann-Margret is still playing the sex kitten on-screen

In real life, Ann-Margret is quite shy and prefers to dress modestly.
In real life, Ann-Margret is quite shy and prefers to dress modestly. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEVERLY HILLS (California) • In the new Zach Braff-directed heist comedy Going In Style, out on April 7, actress Ann-Margret stars as Annie, a supermarket employee who flirts, overtly, with a grumpy old man of a customer played by Alan Arkin.

They eventually end up in bed. More on that later.

Off the screen, it turns out Ann-Margret is actually not all that familiar with grocery stores.

"I went once and I asked the lady next to me, 'Which one is spinach?'" the 75-year-old actress said, before breaking out into laughter.

Still, she was not joking.

When the movie - a remake of a 1979 George Burns vehicle about three elderly gentlemen who rob a bank - was filmed in 2015 in New York City, "Alan and I were doing a scene with vegetables," Ann-Margret continued. "'What's that?' I asked him. It was purple and it was perfect."

"You don't know what that is?" Arkin said to her.

"No, I don't," Ann-Margret responded.

"It's an eggplant," Arkin told her.

"Usually I just see eggplant all mashed up," Ann-Margret said in an attempt to explain away her confusion. "Alan Arkin is a good cook. He couldn't fathom the fact that I didn't know what the purple thing was. I'm the only one of all my friends that doesn't cook. But I don't cook and I don't care."

Working in that grocery store, at least for a film role, suited her though. "I got to wear a cute outfit," she said.

It was a chilly Southern California afternoon and Ann-Margret was seeking another cute outfit. This one would be for the Going In Style premiere, which takes place in New York. So she paid a visit to the marbled atelier of Mark Zunino, a tanned, muscled designer she has worked with since he took over the business of his mentor, the late Nolan Miller, who also regularly dressed her.

"Isn't this so glamorous?" Ann-Margret asked as she walked in, wearing a yellow printed shirt and scarf that belonged to her mother. There were pictures of many of Zunino's clients on the wall, including singer Beyonce, actresses Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor and, of course, Ann-Margret. A fit mannequin was scrawled with Ann-Margret's name and that of singer Selena Gomez. Apparently, their hips are the same size.

"Really?" Ann-Margret asked, underlining the aw-shucks, "Who me?" persona that has trailed her since the 1960s.

"She's beautiful," she said of Gomez. "I've seen her on television." Typically, she will alert Zunino to her event calendar. "This time, we gave them a week," said Mr Alan Margulies, the actress' manager, who accompanied her to the fitting, along with his assistant, a hairstylist and a make-up artist.

"They know what I don't like," Ann-Margret chimed in, then paused for effect. "What don't I like?"

"I know everyone likes her to be sexy, but she likes to be modest," said Mr Rene Horsch, Zunino's equally tanned and muscled publicity director and in-house stylist. "She'd wear a turtleneck if she could."

Zunino's team presented the actress with two looks - one black, one cotton-candy coloured. Before trying either on, Ann-Margret already knew which one was for her: a dress with a removable sleeveless vest, one that she described as Bye Bye Birdie pink. Playing the all-American teenager Kim MacAfee in the canonical 1963 movie musical set the then-wide-eyed 21-year-old Swede on the path to superstardom. She likes to stick with what she knows works.

"It's very 'We've got a lot of living to do,'" she said, referring to a big number in the film, as she comically gnawed at the pink crystals lining the dress' sleeves.

Despite having more than 50 films and innumerable episodes of television, from The Flintstones to Army Wives, under her dancer's belt, Ann-Margret said that she liked to keep it demure and was still quite shy. At premieres, "I'm uncomfortable", she explained, as she slipped into the outfit, borrowing a pair of heels and getting a hair and make-up touch-up for a photographer.

"How Ann-Margret is that?" she asked no one in particular as she gave herself a once-over in a mirror.

She has also played the sex kitten time and again, a role she reprises as a septuagenarian in Going In Style. But it makes her blush to describe her love scenes with Arkin, who turned 83 yesterday.

"I'm an only child; my father did not see Carnal Knowledge," she said of the 1971 film, with Jack Nicholson, that earned her an Academy Award nomination. "He was very proud that people had said that I was talented as an actress, but he knew what it involved." As Mr Horsch pinned the outfit, she coyly asked to change topics.

Though there were a few Ray Donovan episodes in 2014 and movies such as 2006's The Breakup and 2009's Old Dogs, her main role these days remains nursing her husband, Roger Smith, who has Parkinson's disease.

"If we make it to May 8, we will have been married 50 years," she said. He was not well enough to join her for much of the film's New York shoot and his attendance at the premiere was up in the air. "I'm a loner anyway," she said.

But still, she admitted, she would like to keep working, the thought of which changed her outlook on discussing that sex scene with Arkin after all.

"It's different. It's age-appropriate. I think it's wonderful," she said, wistfully. "There's no cut-off age. It doesn't end when you hit 40. It doesn't end when you hit 50. Just because you're older doesn't mean that we've stopped wanting to be with someone. It doesn't mean that you're dead."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'At 75, Ann-Margret is still playing the sex kitten on-screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe