We all have a story that makes us who we are. I’ve never written mine before, but when Tatler asked me to put pen to paper, I said I’d do my best. I want to preface this by noting that I had surgery last week to remove a 3cm cancerous tumour from my brain, so I’m hoping I’m still coherent. The truth is that for the past 18 months, I’ve been staring death in the face. I have nothing to lose in writing about it.
It began in February 2019: I was on a career high, organising and hosting a panel at the BFI for the 50th anniversary of Where Eagles Dare, a film that my father, the producer Elliott Kastner, made in 1968. Film was my father’s life, and it has been mine, too – from my earliest days as an actress, to the time when, working in the marketing department on a Bond film, I pulled up with a car full of props at my Notting Hill flat to be greeted by my hitherto un-met neighbour Robbie Williams. (He asked me in for drinks, and when I told him I was teetotal he was delighted and put the kettle on.) After losing out to Gwyneth Paltrow for the female lead in Shakespeare in Love, I decided to move into film producing, where I’ve been ever since.
The feeling of pride I had that BFI evening vanished two days later when I was diagnosed with two stage-four cancers. One was in my colon, and I also had a uterine sarcoma that they told me was so rare, only one in a million people get it. Little wonder, perhaps, that my friends have always called me ‘One in a Mil’. I was told I had six months to live if I didn’t have treatment – and 33 months if I did. I remember staring at my oncologist, Naureen, and saying to her: ‘Pump me up then, because I can take the drugs. I may be small, but I can take them.’ And so the fight began.
Having been pretty healthy throughout my 48 years, the news was shattering. All I could think about was how I was going to tell my two children. They had already seen their grandfather and one of my best friends, Charlotte Brosnan, die of cancer far too soon (I always look out for Charlotte’s daughter, Bella, who is my goddaughter), so they sensed what might be in store. My 15-year-old son, Jack, was in despair. My daughter, Sophia, 11, sat down at the table with my mother and started making me the most beautiful ‘You can do it’ card.
That was lovely, and inspiring. But having terminal cancer, it turns out, is scary. You can’t control it – it controls you. Sometimes, I panic that I won’t see my children grow up or get to watch what they do with their lives. (I have a rough idea, though: Jack wants to be a footballer and already plays for Aldershot Academy, and if Sophia’s legs grow as long as her aunt’s, she’ll be a basketball player – and I’ll have raised two athletes.)
When my father died of cancer, I looked back on his life and realised what a private person he was. I can hear him yelling at me now: ‘I don’t wash windows and I don’t give interviews!’ He was reserved; I am an open book. I tell everyone everything – so much so that, towards the end of his life, my dad used to shout: ‘Why are you telling everybody I’m dying?’ To which I’d reply: ‘Because you are!’ ‘Yeah,’ he’d yell, ‘but I’m still making movie deals!’ It’s his chutzpah that has inspired me these past months to keep the show rolling and carry on with a sense of humour. My girlfriends all looked mortified when I told them that if all this doesn’t work out, at least I won’t have to spend a fortune on a facelift. Laughter truly is the best medicine. As, to some degree, are memories – memories of a gilded life.
My dad started a memoir that remained unfinished when he died, and it was in 1972 that I made my debut in his remarkable story. He was a tough, Jewish, New York film producer with a heart of gold, and my mother, Tessa Kennedy, was one of London’s social swans, but recently widowed when they met. My parents had Dillon first, and I was their first girl. My mum always tells me she would have had a whole football team until she got her girl, and I have a troupe of brothers – four-strong – to prove it.
Being the youngest had its pros and cons – all the cool girls at school fancied my brother Cary Elwes, who at the time was starring in The Princess Bride. I got major street cred when his Brat Pack friends Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson came to pick me up from my convent boarding school in Ascot. On the downside, I was too scared to bring boys home to meet my father and brothers, and I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 19.
Growing up in Hollywood, I had my dad’s movie sets as my playground. He was one of the first to break away from the studios and produce films independently, and he was famous for self-financing many of the classics, from The Missouri Breaks to Heat and Angel Heart. One of my earliest memories is a magical Easter at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs. Grace Kelly (my godmother), the Grants, the Pecks, and Roger and Luisa Moore (my brother Dillon’s godparents) were all there. On Easter Sunday, we all went to church and the priest, Father Blewit, introduced his celebrity congregation on loudspeaker, getting their names wrong. He called Prince Rainier ‘Prince Rain’, which made my dad howl with laughter and say: ‘Well, Father Blewit really blew it.’
I loved going to Frank’s house. He had a special games room with a giant train track that he’d spend hours building and I’d spend hours watching. We got on like a house on fire – in fact, he dedicated a song to me called You and I (We Wanted It All), which I will cherish forever. People assume Frank was my godfather, but on my christening certificate from Jordan in 1972, it lists Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Firyal of Jordan as my godmothers, and King Hussein of Jordan as my godfather. Joan Collins stepped in as my godmother when Grace died. I remember it like it was yesterday – I came home from school and my mum was crying. She told me the princess had been in a car crash and broken her leg – but by the next day, she had died. Grace was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, inside and out. She taught me to enjoy life and be comfortable in your own skin. She wasn’t worried about dieting and would have been horrified by Botox and lip fillers.
Though I have friends and family who grew up in palaces, I have lots of people in my life who didn’t. And one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s the joy people feel inside that’s important, not the house they live in. I’ve had some interesting housemates in my time, too, but none more entertaining than Robbie Williams and Max Beesley.
From that first Notting Hill night Robbie and I met, we were inseparable, like brother and sister. I ended up moving to Los Angeles in 2001 and lived there with Robbie for two years. While in LA, I became pregnant to one of my eldest brother’s friends, Cary Woods. When I moved back to London, pregnant with Jack, everyone thought the baby was Robbie’s – but we were, and always have been, just friends. I then stated dating an art dealer, Alex Corcoran, whom I married in 2008. Sophia was born in 2009.
Robbie has been a rock ever since that Notting Hill tea party. And my goodness, we’ve had fun. One night, on tour with him in Australia, I put on some Agent Provocateur hot pants and walked on stage in front of 60,000 people as a surprise. That’s a tale I haven’t yet told my oncologist, nor my sarcoma oncologist, Dr Robin Jones. I’ve had quite a bit of physical pain that even the pills sometimes can’t eliminate. At times it feels worse than childbirth, or like Darth Vader is prodding me with his lightsaber. But I also feel somehow that the force is with me and I have the power to floor the cancer, to beat it at its own game.
It’s been really uplifting to feel everyone’s love and support flowing in. I’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of care, not just for me but for my children. Friends have rallied round and made sure our needs are met. I’m proud of the group of people I brought together before all this happened – the love was already there between all of us. The silver lining is that I have this time right now, and it’s taught me to live in the moment. It’s also brought me much closer to some of my friends and to my brother Dillon.
Cancer has finally made me reach out in my life and ask for help, which I never did before. My childhood friend Jemima Khan has been wonderful – she came to my meeting with my liver surgeon, which was a good call as he looked after me like a princess while she was there. Pip Gill, a talent agent, has been a close friend since I moved back to London, and always cheers me up. Olivia Falcon, whom I met at Jemima’s 18th in Paris, has been incredibly supportive, as has Sacha Mavroleon, who has never failed to take me to a chemo appointment – and Saffron Aldridge, my own personal Nurse Ratched! If I listed every friend who has come to my rescue, this article would be twice as long. My treatment hasn’t been too impacted by Covid. I’m no longer allowed to have anyone come in with me, and when you are told the cancer has moved to your brain, you really need someone. When I got that news, my friend Lil Heyman was waiting outside the hospital to scoop me up.
I have good days and not-so-good days, but I always stay positive. I don’t believe in pity parties. It would be a lie not to admit that I have sad moments, too, when I want to cry. Dillon has introduced me to meditation, which we do together every day. It forces me to calm down. As I said, we all have a story and I am choosing not to be a victim in mine. When you do that, it’s game over. You have to keep strong, keep fighting and be positive. And love is the cure.
This article was originally published in the February issue
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