< Back to Interviews menu

'Acting Is a Craft, Not a Calling; The More You Do of It, The Less Awful You Get'

The Times, 1983-03-30

'It's either Safeways or Tescos: if you're not in one of the big subsidized companies, you may as well be in the other': thus Zoe Wanamaker, who should know.  Last Thursday she finished a six-month National Theatre stint as an unusually suffragette Gwendolen in Peter Hall's acclaimed Importance of Being Earnest; by Friday she was back at her former Royal Shakespeare Company home in Stratford for the first preview of William Saroyan's late-1930s American comedy The Time of Your Life, in which she opens with Daniel Massey and John Thaw at the Other Place tonight.

As interviews in these columns over the last few days have already indicated, the RSC is going into the 1983-1984 season with a remarkably strong Stratford, all of whom should then be into the Barbican by about the middle of next year.  For Miss Wanamaker, that season also includes Viola in Twelfth Night and Adriana in The Comedy of Errors, both in the main Stratford house, where she has thus far done surprisingly little of her RSC work, largely because her main successes with the company have always been London-based in such transferable hits as Piaf and Once in a Lifetime and Wild Oats.

The middle of Sam Wanamaker's three daughters (the eldest is a speech therapist in Trinidad and the youngest a city councillor in Southwark), Zoe Wanamaker was born in New York 33 years ago but arrived here at the age of three when her father was blacklisted by the Hollywood McCarthy tribunal:

'I've always felt that I was American, never more so than when doing The Importance of Being Earnest, because the English speech-rhythms and word-patterns of Wilde took me ages to learn; Peter Hall was wonderfully helpful, but I thought I was desperately miscast, because everybody else in the company seemed to have terribly English backgrounds.  Somehow we'd always remained an American family in London: my mother could never get used to the fact that England in 1954 didn't have air conditioning and central heating and showers and eight-foot refrigerators as standard equipment in all flats.

'But, being an actor's family, we were always nomadic, and the money came and went a lot; if father had a film, we all lived very well for a while, but then suddenly there wouldn't be enough money for school books.  You know he's lived and worked here for thirty years now and people still think he's fundamentally based in New York and just comes over on visits?  So much of his life has gone into his Globe Theatre project that as an actor and director he now seldom gets the attention he deserves.  Oh, he's a marvellous man.'

Not, however, one who much wanted his daughter to go into the same business: 'Both my parents thought it would be terrible for me to go through all the misery of unemployment and being forever on trial, which is what being an actress means; they wanted me to do something quite different, so I went to the Hornsey College of Art and tried to become a painter.  That was a disaster, so I went to the Rambert ballet school and found that I couldn't dance either.  After that I became a Dictaphone typist for a while, until they discovered I was a bit dyslexic and that ended my secretarial career.

'After that even my parents could see that there was nothing left but acting, so I went to the Central School in the generation of James Faulkner and Chris Neame.  I desperately wanted to change my name so that I wouldn't be an embarrassment to Sam if I failed, but somehow they always find out who you are.  Both the Central and my parents told me I had to get as much work in the reps and the regions as possible, so I went straight into the Manchester 69 company, working for Braham Murray in the university theatre there, and after that I went to Nottingham for Richard Eyre and by that time it was the middle 1970s and I thought that, although I wasn't very good, I did maybe have something.  Acting is a craft, not a calling; the more you do of it, the less awful you get.  So I just kept working: drama-documentaries on television, a Young Vic season, whatever came along.

'Then in 1979 Trevor Nunn gave me the Kaufman-Hart Once in a Lifetime to read and for the first time in my career I knew I was home; not only geographically, in America, but theatrically too: I could hear the lines as I read them.  Then there was Piaf and apart from Jane Lapotaire I was the only one of the London cast to go with that to New York, because I had American citizenship so could work without a permit.  Broadway was terrifying: there's a lot of fear around there which just doesn't exist in the English theatre, and if you don't get above the title (which I didn't) they make you feel less than nothing.  Jane kept getting the limousines and the flowers and I kept getting told to clear out of her light.  The wonder was that our old friendship survived; it did, but only just.

'We didn't have the Broadway success with Piaf that we'd had at the Warehouse: Howard Davies, who I'm back with now for The Time of Your Life, is a very austere and English director who rightly goes for the text where Broadway goes for the drama.  They couldn't understand why we were playing it all in cockney instead of Maurice Chevalier French accents, and they didn't care for some of the language.  They wanted a nice clean celebration of Piaf with a lot of pink gauze, and what they got was the gritty truth.

'They did ask me to stay, but none of the offers seemed very exciting and, having originally thought that I was going back to my Broadway heritage, I in fact found that I had become somehow rather too English to cope with the life out there.  So I came back and did Baal on television with David Bowie and then Strike with Ian Holm, and then the National came along with The Importance so I did that.  I think if they'd offered me anything else I'd probably have stayed: there are rumours of them doing You Can't Take It With You, which is another Kaufman-Hart and would have suited me after Once in a Lifetime, but that didn't seem to come my way, so then when the RSC offered me these three comedies at Stratford I thought, why not?'

Site design and original text © 2002 - 2024 www.zoewanamaker.com, unless specified otherwise.
Most images used on this site are the copyright of their photographer, Ms. Wanamaker, and/or the production company of the show. Use of these images is covered under the fair use limitation in the USA, and the fair dealing limitaton in the UK.
This site is a non-commercial endeavour.