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So Many Different Characters

Amanda Mitchison Telegraph, 1999-01-01

She's been a dog and a leprechaun, and is currently a smelly princess and a mad aunt, but Zoë Wanamaker's own personality is elusive.  Amanda Mitchison meets a curiously reserved actress.

Some actors have fine, malleable, almost boneless faces.  They can dissolve into a part - give them a beard or a wig and they are anyone.  That's not the case with Zoë Wanamaker.  She is always so recognisable - the wide jaw, the long, thin mouth, the slanting almond eyes that scrunch and disappear when she laughs, the big blunt nose.  It is a handsome, slightly skewed face - a face that looks as if it is pressed up against glass.

Which is precisely what it is when I first meet her, crouched over with her face jammed up against the bathroom mirror while she teases out the longer strands of hair so that they poke out nicely and perpendicularly for the photographer.  Like many bathroom meetings, ours is a slightly awkward one.  'Are you putting your spikes in order?' I ask facetiously.  She smiles and blurts 'Oh! F- '  And then, remembering that she is talking to a member of the press, she stops and says, 'Oh! Fine!'  From an actress, it is a surprisingly spontaneous and transparent reaction.

We had met before, on location for Gormenghast, the BBC's costume extravaganza based on Mervyn Peake's gothic epic.  Then Wanamaker was playing Cora, one of a pair of mad, semi-paralysed, identical twin aunts.  She was dressed in a vast corseted long dress made of heavy brocade with leg-of-mutton sleeves, her face bone-white, with little badly painted red rosebud lips, false protruding teeth, great smears of rouge across her cheeks, and an extraordinary plaited, strudel-like coiffure sticking some ten inches above her head.  Lynsey Baxter, who played the other twin, Clarice, was dressed and made up the same - down to the mirror-image lipstick smears.

The women did not, of course, look identical - Baxter is thinner and lighter-boned - yet limping about the set with their identical vacant expressions, their identical mannerisms, their identical slightly strangled, monotonous, childish voices, and their arms and legs moving in almost perfect tandem, Wanamaker and Baxter seemed to merge into one.  They were horribly fascinating to watch - a veritable pair of synchronised freaks.

During the lunch break one of the freaks broke loose and walked over at a vigorous pace, in her little red rosebud mouth a liquorice paper roll-up.  We chatted briefly.  Even then it was clear that she had those qualities you hope for but don't always find in an actress - enormous reserves of energy, a facility for doing different voices, and a lovely comic timing to her anecdotes; she is also, in the nicest possible way, terribly foul-mouthed.  Expletives just tripped off her tongue.  Without a second thought, she would preface some opinion with, 'I may be talking through my arse but ...', ending it with, '... it's just b*llocks! b*llocks! b*llocks!'

On that occasion, dressed in her frightful whaleboned costume, surrounded by lights and greasepaint, Wanamaker had seemed completely relaxed.  Today, in the BBC interview suite, sitting with her matching white top and trousers - very new, very clean, very expensively floppy - and her feet crossed and tucked under her on the sofa, she feels far less at ease.  She complains that she doesn't like being photographed.  The problem, she exclaims, is that 'you don't know who you are to be!'  This, she says, has always been a problem.  As a child 'I could never decide what to wear.  So I wore about five different things, which I still do to this day.  I don't really know who I am going to be today.'

So does she like dressing up for parties?

Another huge broad smile, then, 'You mean, have I been known to be a slag?  Yes!  My dream is always to wear leopardskin pants, tight leopardskin!  If I dared, I would!'

Have you ever thought of having your nose done?

She sits up in mock indignation and exclaims, 'Nobody has ever dared say that to me, except you!'  And that is when I first hear her laugh - not a twinkly ladylike giggle but a great, wild, dirty old man cackle, loud and long, sometimes preceded by a soft snort.

Wanamaker has never been a conventional beauty.  When she was younger, and not deemed standard leading-lady material, she thought this a disadvantage.  But now she acknowledges that she has had a far more varied career than she might have expected.

Mervyn Peake's mad maiden aunt in the attic is only one of several pretty outlandish parts that she has taken in recent years.  In 1996, in AR Gurney's play Sylvia, she acted a dog, and even appeared in Dog Monthly.  The play, however, was a disaster: 'God knows why.  Wrong dog, wrong character, wrong actor, who cares?  I couldn't give a f***.  I really couldn't.  But it was a shame for the producer, who is a mensch.'

In Battle Royal, a new and rather overlong play at the National about the disastrous marriage of George IV, Zoë Wanamaker, doing hysterical fits in a woolly looking wig and heavy German accent, is currently starring as the smelly, disinhibited but, none the less, sympathetic Princess Caroline of Brunswick.

And today, when we meet at the BBC, she has just come from playing a leprechaun in [The Magical Legend of the] Leprechauns, an American mini-series for television, directed by John Henderson.  'It is a gas!  It is so much fun!  Whoopi Goldberg is in it - she plays the grand banshee, and Harriet Walter is in it.  She plays Queen of the Fairies!  And Roger Daltrey - he is in it!  He plays King of the Fairies.  Now!  That is funny!'  Cackle, cackle, cackle.

'I think acting should be fun!  And a lot of the time it is not.  Electra was not fun,' she says referring to her role in Frank McGuinness's adaptation of Sophocles' play, which was a sell-out on Broadway last year.

She continues, 'But it was fantastically rewarding - not hearing a pin drop for an hour-and-a-half from an American audience is quite sensational.  They are notorious for talking loudly, as if watching television, notorious for going out in the middle of a speech - no sense of theatre.  It was wonderful!  And then to have people stand up!  I couldn't give a monkey's fart, but they stood up for Sophocles, and that is a fantastic feeling!'

In fact, Wanamaker is herself American.  Her father, the director and actor Sam Wanamaker, brought his family to Britain when Zoë was three.  It was only meant to be a temporary trip, but, because of McCarthyism, the family stayed on.  First they lived in genteel Hampstead, then, because Sam Wanamaker had become obsessed with rebuilding Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, they moved to a dilapidated house in Southwark, near the site of his beloved project.

Sam Wanamaker was a large, daunting figure, inspiring but explosive.  Zoë's mother, the actress Charlotte Holland, stayed at home, very much the good wife and mother.  It has often been remarked that Zoë has her father's obduracy and showmanship, but she insists, 'I have a lot of my mother in me, too.  She was a very shy person and very self-deprecating.'

As if to prove the point, she goes on to say, 'I was known as the stupid one of the family.'  She was sent to King Alfred - a liberal, private school in north London.  'They thought it was right for me because I was' - here she stares madly and wobbles her head, shaking the spikes of hair and says, 'zzzzzzzzzz.'  Afterwards she went to Sidcot, a Quaker girls' boarding school in Somerset.

When she was ten she had spent a summer at Stratford with her father, fallen in love with the theatre, and set her heart on becoming an actress.  'I wasn't good at anything else.'  But her parents did their best to discourage her - as they had their other two daughters (Zoë's elder and younger sisters).  Wanamaker explains, 'This business - particularly for women - is not one that is kind.  It is you that is being judged.  Not how good a mathematician you are, how good a butcher you are, how good a surgeon you are. It is you.'

After school Wanamaker crept like a snail to a secretarial course, then art college.  In addition she studied dance.  This has remained an abiding interest and traces of the training are still evinced today in the physical confidence and expressiveness of some of her performances - when Princess Caroline has hysterical fits in Battle Royal even her toes participate.

Eventually, realising that the attempts at alternative careers were to no avail, her parents relented, and in her early twenties Wanamaker enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama.  She flourished there, although she says that the first time she realised she had 'actually learnt something' was not until eight years after she finished drama school: 'I was doing Piaf with Jane Lapotaire, and I never knew what to do with my hands.  Suddenly I realised I wasn't thinking about my hands.  I was thinking about who the person was, and that for me was a great feeling of achievement - something as stupid and as simple as that.'

For years, although she took a few small television parts (a murderer's wife, for example, in the first Prime Suspect), Wanamaker was principally a stage actress.  She worked on and off for the RSC, mainly in modern parts, though she was widely admired for a memorable Viola at Stratford.  The critics liked her, so did the interviewers.  Other actors spoke of her generosity as a colleague.  She won awards or nominations for Once in a Lifetime, Piaf, Loot and Mother Courage.  Trevor Nunn spoke warmly of her talent at portraying 'extreme vulnerability'.  Other directors talked, as directors will, of 'uncompromising artistic integrity', 'honesty' and even 'vast internal landscape'.

Then, in the early Nineties, two events triggered dramatic changes in Wanamaker's life.  The first was television stardom.  In 1992 she played the feisty have-it-all career woman Tessa Piggott opposite Adam Faith in the BBC1 television series Love Hurts, and suddenly found herself very famous - and a sex symbol of sorts.  Everywhere she went she was recognised: 'One time there was even a car crash!  Somebody was staring out the window and went into another car - it was because they were looking at me!'

Then she adds more seriously, 'I was extremely wary of the press and what could happen.  I didn't want to become a personality.  It gets in the way when you appear as a different character that you are just as easily seen in Hello! or OK! or presenting this or that or other.  So you spread yourself thin and then you are asking an audience to suspend their disbelief.'  Then she looks across, grimaces, 'Am I saying the right thing?'

But, in unexpected ways, Wanamaker has used this new-found fame.  In December 1993, Sam Wanamaker, after a painful and lingering illness, died from prostate cancer.  Afterwards Zoë took over her father's 30-year campaign to rebuild the Globe, and the theatre finally opened in 1996.  She also became honorary vice-president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society [now Dignity in Dying] and spoke out about how, in his last weeks, her father had only had two pain-free hours a day and had asked to be put out of his misery.  She confessed that she and her sisters, who had taken it in turns to sleep on the floor by his bed, had debated whether to smother him with a pillow.

The death of Sam Wanamaker also had one happy, unexpected, consequence.  While she was mourning her father, Zoë Wanamaker's old friend the actor Gawn Grainger was also recovering from the recent death of his wife Janet Key.  Grainger and Wanamaker, drawn together by their losses, fell in love.  In 1994 they married, and Wanamaker, who has no children of her own, inherited a teenage stepson and stepdaughter.

Wanamaker was apparently 45 when she married. We cannot be certain - today she must be about 50 - but she is sensitive about the matter and her birthday in Who's Who is listed merely as '13 May'.  In someone so seemingly forthright, this may seem strange.  Yet there are other areas of Wanamaker's life about which we know little.  Although she has talked of her father's death, and has over the years alluded to a series of long-term relationships, we have no names, no intimate details.  Her personal life before her marriage to Grainger is still a blank.

She has also avoided other pitfalls.  You could never say she was typecast.  She is liked and admired by her colleagues.  She has not sold out to advertisements or appeared in truly terrible films.  Not that this means she is particularly highbrow.  Asked whether she would like a part in one of the big American blockbusters - a Mission: Impossible, say, she gives a little bounce to the sofa and that scrunched up smile of hers: 'Oh no, it would be really great!  Of course!  Oh yeah!  I'd like to do all sorts of things!  That's the great thing about being an actress.  You can be so many different people!'

So is Zoë Wanamaker's life a lesson in the value of delayed gratification?  Having come rather late to fame and domestic felicity, she does seem to have her life particularly well-balanced and 'sorted'.  She did once say, 'You can't live your life worrying.  Some people learn that lesson very quickly.  It wasn't until Dad died that I realised [this].  I think it's great that the older you get, the more you can tell people to sod off.'

Maturity does bring wisdom, but with Zoë Wanamaker it is more instinct than calculated strategy.  For she is by nature such an odd mixture - approachable but private, forthright and yet shy, most sensitive and yet imbued with a banana-skin sense of humour.

When I asked her about Lynsey Baxter, who plays her twin in Gormenghast, she replied, 'For years I was fascinated by her, always fascinated by her.'  Why?  She pauses, then just as she is about to speak she shakes her head.  'No, no,' she says, 'it's too personal, too intimate.'  A minute later, the mobile rings.  It is Grainger - they discuss their plans for the evening. 'Oh yes, a drink!  Oh yes!  Yes!' exclaims Wanamaker.  Then she puts the phone down and starts recounting how the son of a close friend had had a road accident.  He's fine, she says, except, 'poor thing, his b*llocks are hurting!'  Out comes another great cackle of merry laughter.

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