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'The Stage Does Your Brain In'

Helena de Bertodano Telegraph, 1997-09-27

Zoe Wanamaker does not like talking about acting or about herself - which does not leave much room for manoeuvre.  I prepare myself for a short interview.

Fortunately she is in a more loquacious mood today.  She says that it is not so much the subjects themselves that make her nervous but the way she expresses herself.  'One always wants to be the most articulate and wittiest person alive, and sometimes the words won't happen.'

So when I ask her if I can use a tape recorder she says that I can as long as I don't quote her directly.  'Use better words if you can,' she suggests.  But she is more articulate than she gives herself credit for and offers rather more useful insights into her profession than many of her colleagues.

Most actors will tell you how much they adore the theatre because it is the only medium in which they can communicate directly with the audience.  Zoe Wanamaker has no time for the luvvie-ish guff, and complains that she hates the monotony of the stage.

'The endless repetition is inhuman and silly.  I don't believe actors can give of their best playing eight shows a week.  Ask a taxi driver to go to Heathrow and back every day, sometimes twice a day, and he will say the same.  After a while it does your brain in.'

For someone who is about to embark on a three-month run of Sophocles' Electra, surely one of the most draining plays imaginable, such remarks do not augur well for her state of mind by Christmas.  The play opens in Chichester tomorrow, transferring to London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre on October 21.

For those who share her lack of enthusiasm for the theatre, she can instead be seen on screen in the film Wilde, opening next month, in which she plays a friend of Oscar Wilde.

But on the stage Wanamaker is playing Electra herself, a near-psychotic woman who avenges her father's death at the cost of her mother's life.  Although Frank McGuinness' version of the play lasts only 90 minutes, it is unbroken and Wanamaker is on the stage for most of that time.  'It's unrelenting,' she says resignedly.

If she finds the repetition so senseless and gruelling, why does she put herself through it?

'Why do I do it?' she says, looking puzzled.  It seems as though such a question has never crossed her mind before.  She shakes her head and shrugs: 'I really don't know.'

This is the answer to many of my questions.  It is not that she is being particularly difficult - she just does not have pat answers to hand.  But she knows that she must say something positive about Electra and has written some notes to prompt herself.  Even so, they are a little confusing and contradictory.  'It's a play about Electra's loss of self-possession.  She is a woman who completely believes in herself.'

We are sitting in a small office in the warren of rooms behind the Chichester theatre.  Wanamaker is knocking back the mineral water as though she has been in the desert for a week, and is smoking her trademark roll-ups, which she makes with black Rizlas.  Now that she has shorn her hair, she looks more like a pixie than ever, with her distinctive tip-tilt nose.  She speaks in a low husky voice, occasionally punctuating her words with a surprisingly raucous laugh.

Instead of instantly objecting when I ask her whether actors are more self-obsessed than other people, she concedes that this is probably true.  'You have nothing to sell but yourself: you are the product and that forces you into examining yourself deeply.  It's not so much your work that gets rejected, it's you.  It is your flesh, your bones, your brain, your eyes, your feet.  Particularly when you are starting your career, you can become completely self-absorbed - you are constantly checking yourself to see how you appear to other people.  You have to have supreme self-confidence, or create self-confidence.'

Is she self-confident?  'No,' she says.  'Success makes you confident, but that is so transitory and so easily taken away.  I personally am very cynical about success.'

This is hardly surprising when one considers her career. After at least two decades of toiling in the theatre in worthy and not-so-worthy productions, she was still virtually unknown to the general public until she starred in Love Hurts with Adam Faith, a television series which earned her overnight fame.

'That's the sadness of the theatre; you can play Hamlet for two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and reach, at tops, two million people.  But one night on TV and you reach 10 million people.  I don't resent it but I do find the power of television so astounding.  You think of all that work in the theatre, which was good, and who knew about it?'

As the daughter of the actor/director Sam Wanamaker, whose mission in life was to recreate the most famous theatre of them all - Shakespeare's Globe - she probably feels that she could no more renounce the theatre than she could change her identity.  After her father's death in 1993, she continued his work and the Globe finally opened earlier this year.  It is already a major tourist attraction and as she herself says, it is strange that it took an American to breathe life into the project and even stranger that no one will grant permission to excavate the original site.

'How a country which has the greatest playwright who ever lived could not be interested in any way as to what...' she stops herself.  'I get emotional about these things and I shouldn't.  I just don't understand it.'

Although she has lived in England since the age of three she only holds an American passport.  Her father came to Britain during the McCarthyite persecutions of the late 1940s and the family settled comfortably in Highgate.  But Sam's obsession with the Globe became so all-consuming that he moved the family to Southwark to be nearer to it.  'In Highgate my mother had everything she wanted: a larder, a double-door refrigerator and a garden.  Suddenly Dad said, ''That's enough of that'' and moved her to a dilapidated house in Southwark, where she had to cook on a baby Belling for six years until they were allowed to buy the place.'

The second of three sisters, Wanamaker went to a Quaker boarding school and, despite the discouragement of her parents, was determined to become an actor.  At the age of 10, she had become entranced by the stage when she spent a summer in Stratford with her father.  To pacify her parents, she tried her hand at painting and then at secretarial skills.  But she shone at neither and her parents finally relented and sent her to the Central Drama School.  Since then she has enjoyed 25 years of virtually consistent work and has won awards and nominations for Mother Courage, Piaf, Once in a Lifetime and The Crucible.  But her latest West End play, Sylvia, in which she played a dog, did not run as long as expected.

'That's a polite way of putting it,' she says, laughing throatily.  In fact it flopped after two weeks.  But this had more to do with the banality of the subject matter than with Wanamaker herself.

Her director in Electra, David Leveaux, describes her as 'ferociously modern - her acting is spare, pure and highly focused.  She has a huge internal landscape and an incredible honesty: whatever she says, on stage or off stage, you know it's meant.  But she is not sensible; you cannot be sensible to play Electra.'

Wanamaker thinks that the English are particularly ungenerous about actors.  'There is a kind of suspicion, an idea that maybe they are enjoying themselves too much.  I suppose if you go back to the Restoration, they just thought actors were whores and vagabonds and they probably were to some extent.  People don't understand that it is a craft - they think it's a doddle, that we are just dressing up and showing off...'

Like most actors, she cannot stand the tag 'luvvies' applied to people of her profession: 'I just find that really boring and I think Trevor Nunn was absolutely right when he said...'  She tails off and her expression of irritation gives way to one of amusement.  'Well, I can't remember what he said, but I still think he was right. That kind of word is an act of aggression.'

She used to prefer to be known as an actor not an actress, because she thought that the connotations of 'actress' belittled her rigorous approach to her career.  'I used to think that people wouldn't take you seriously if you called yourself an actress, that they would think of feather boas and false eyelashes and all that... I don't think that is so true any more.'

Wanamaker recently married a fellow actor, Gawn Grainger, and has become stepmother to his two children.  There was a time when she wanted children, she says, but 'it didn't work out that way'.

'I have no guilt about it. I don't think women should be made to feel that they have to marry and have children to be a human being.  Women in particular are very vulnerable to feeling insecure and I don't want to be insecure.  I've got enough of that in my job.  I don't need it in my life.'

Fear of disappointment, she says, originally prevented her from marrying.  'My romanticism always wanted it to be perfect.  Therefore I wasn't going to do it.  And I didn't see why I should be viewed as a sad old lady one day for making that choice.'

Gawn's wife and Zoe's father both died of cancer within a few months of each other and the two actors sought solace in one another.  She is surprised to find that she has become far more home-bound since her marriage.  'I don't really want to go away any more.'

For someone so direct, she is unusually coy about her age.  Although birthday columns in newspapers give her age as 48, in Debretts there is no mention of her birth and in Who's Who, it is just noted as May 13, without the year.  Was that deliberate, I ask?  'I just don't think it's anybody's business.  The only time I think about my age is when someone dies and then you confront your own mortality and think how much time you've got left.  I had a miserable teenagehood and a miserable twenties and now I'm determined to enjoy myself.'

Playing Electra for the next three months seems a rather sado-masochistic form of enjoyment. But Wanamaker insists that despite her feelings about the monotony of the stage, there is never a dull moment in this play.  'I used to think Greek drama was a lot of moaning and crying and tearing your hair out.  It is - but it is also rather more than that.  There has to be some reason why it has lasted over 2,000 years.'

Both her parents have now died and her father's death, in particular, really shook her.  He was dying slowly from cancer and she was sorely tempted to speed him on his way.  'It was the most useless waste of pain.  I had always believed in voluntary euthanasia but my father's death made me much more aware.'

Was she sure that her father wanted to die?  'Without question.  He'd had enough.  The Globe had kept him alive - and his tenacity and strength - but his quality of life had deteriorated to nil.'

Now an honorary president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society [now known as Dignity in Dying], Wanamaker strongly supports the campaign for a change in the law.  'There should be no guilt associated with it.  If I should ever be in the same situation, I would want somebody to help me.'

What stopped her from lending her father a helping hand?  She gives a bitter chuckle.  'I wasn't Greek enough at the time.'

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