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Zoe Wanamaker - New Funny Girl in Town

Philip Oakes Cosmopolitan, 1979-12-01

Zoe Wanamaker - New Funny Girl in Town image #0

Introducing Sam's daughter, the girl with odd looks and a talent for delivering the wittiest one-liners in the West End.  By Philip Oakes.

Zoë Wanamaker does not love her own face.  There's nothing specifically wrong with it.  It has the usual components: eyes, ears, mouth, etc.  'But it really belongs to my father.  Here especially'.  She sketches a circle round her nose and upper lip.  'You see what I mean?  It's the Sam Wanamaker look.  Fine for him but funny on a girl.  What's more, we've all got it.  Both my sisters and me.  When I left drama school I thought I'd never make it because my face wasn't normal.  I used to watch people's reactions when I went for an audition.  I could usually get that far because they wanted to see what I was like - daughter of a famous father and so on.  It helped me to get my foot in the door, but after that - nothing.  They'd look me over and I could almost read their minds.  What could she play?  How could we use her?  And it was because they thought I looked odd.  It's the reason, I suppose, that I've done a lot of costume parts.  No one seems to think I have a contemporary face.  And that's quite something to live with.'

Hopefully, she thinks, it's a stage in her life that's over.  This autumn she scored a stunning success as May Daniels, the peppy ex-vaudevillian who barnstorms Hollywood in the first days of the talkies in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Moss Hart and George S Kaufman's 1930s comedy, Once in a Lifetime.  Her performance is tough, funny and salted with that brand of true grit that movie heroines like Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell created at the time when screen lovers were required to be staunch as well as sexy.

It's an image that's oddly apposite today and fits Miss Wanamaker like a glove.  She's not unaware of the fact.  'It's important to have the right self-image, but in the theatre it takes time to know exactly where you fit in.  The business is so mercurial, so fluid that if you've not got it right you can be stuck in the wrong groove forever.  It's also very difficult for a woman coming into a company like the RSC.  It's still very much a man's world and you have to discover a way in which you can be accepted both sexually and intellectually.  You want to be regarded as a woman but you also want to demonstrate that you've got a mind, that you're not stupid.'

She's far from that, but - ironically - her understanding of where she's headed and what's in the way has hindered as much as it has helped her career.  'Both my parents were in the business.  My mother - her name is Charlie - quit acting when we came to England from America.  I was born there, by the way, and I'm still an American citizen.  My father went on and did everything - films, TV, theatre.  But both of them vehemently opposed my following in their footsteps.

'They felt that, as a profession, acting was demoralising and destructive.  To succeed, they argued, you need loads of confidence and self-awareness; qualities which most actors lack.  They believed I could be easily destroyed by it.  And pretty soon I could see what they meant.  Success in the theatre doesn't have a great deal to do with talent.  It depends on the taste of other people.  If you're the best architect or the best dancer, the evidence is there and you know it without being told.  But with acting it's different.  You can be rejected not because you are bad, but because you don't conform to the idea of whoever may be watching you.'

For three years she attended Hornsey School of Art.  'In the long run I always meant to act, but it seemed to me important that first I should prove to myself that I had other talents.  Hornsey was good for me because I learned how to draw.  I dropped it immediately after I left, but I'd learned something, I had a skill.  After that I did a speed-writing course.  The course was supposed to produce results in three months.  After six months I realised that I was a disaster.  I couldn't type.  I couldn't spell.  And things weren't made any easier by my being slightly dyslexic.

'I fled from there and for a while I worked for the press office at the Royal Court, typing up releases in a shed at the back of the theatre.  After that I had a brief spell of working for an agent, then I applied for a place in drama school.  Central [School of Speech and Drama] offered me a place and I grabbed it - I couldn't imagine anyone else wanting me.  I was terrified of being rejected.'

The time at Central was a mixed blessing.  'I learned about movement and how to use my voice.  But what I really craved was to find a method, a way of working; something that I could conform to or reject.  I wasn't given that and during my last year - it was a three year course - I decided that I knew absolutely nothing about the theatre and it was time I went out and got some practical experience.

'So I went to Bromley as a student assistant stage manager and my education began.  I was put to work on a production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Ty Hardin and Veronica Lake and it was quite a show.  For a start Veronica Lake was an alcoholic, in her early fifties and looking twenty years older.  She'd been such a beautiful woman and wonderful in films like I Married a Witch.  But she'd hit rock bottom.  She couldn't remember her lines and had to be coached all the way through.  On the first night the dress rehearsal went on until seven thirty and we staggered through to the final curtain, praying for the best.  It was then that I really started to learn about the business.'

Her education accelerated.  She played in repertory in Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds and Nottingham.  She starred as Sally Bowles in a production of Cabaret at Farnham ('One of the best things that's ever happened to me').  She appeared on TV in plays as diverse as The Beaux Stratagem and A Christmas Carol and finally arrived in London by way of The Young Vic and the Roundhouse.  She joined the RSC in 1977, making her mark in Wild Oats, The Devil's Disciple and Ivanov and came of age both professionally and emotionally by weathering a season at Stratford.  'The Stratford year is important in all sorts of ways to an actor.  You are isolated with the company.  The world goes away and life becomes very hived off, very intense.  I think the pattern is much the same for everyone the first time you're there.  You feel yourself removed somehow and, of course, you plunge into the first big love affair that's going to change your life.  Certainly that's what happened to me.  But I've changed in ways I didn't expect.  It probably wouldn't happen the same way again.'

At thirty, Zoë Wanamaker is very much her own lady.  She's at ease with her family, including her two sisters - Jessica, who's studying Chinese in Peking, and Abby, who's teaching English in the Congo - with whom she was nearly always daggers drawn as a child.  She lives in a flat below her parents' house in London.  This season with the RSC she is playing Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew at the Aldwych; Toine in Piaf by Pam Gems and Gemma in Captain Swing, both at the Warehouse.

Unmistakably she has a name and a reputation to conjure with.  But she is nervous of boosting either by an ill-judged interview.  'I'm quite certain that there are times when actors simply should not speak.  Often they come over as stupid and inarticulate, confirming people's worst fears about the profession.'

Ideally, says Zoë Wanamaker, they should get on with their work, guard their self-image and lay down the law as little as possible.  The reason has little to do with modesty; more with self-preservation.  'You see', says the exceptional Miss Wanamaker, 'actors are really such ordinary people.'

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