'I Yearn To Be So Free and Comfortable on That Stage'
Plays and Players, 1977-06-01
This interview is part of a larger feature about three actors.
And as 'everyone' is, at the moment, going to Joe Allen's for lunch, ZoŽ Wanamaker and I decided to meet in the temporarily less popular but no less pleasant Zanzibar. Wild Oats, the RSC hit in which Ms Wanamaker bubbles and gurbles to such pleasant effect, was about to begin its West End run at the Piccadilly, and the prospect of playing the part for six months struck her as terrifying. 'It's not a wonderful part and even now I try and set myself tasks every night to stop myself going bananas.'
'Bananas' are always cropping up in Zoe's conversation, reminding you, despite the distinctive North London accent, that her origins are American. Father Sam refused to go before the McCarthy Committee, was blacklisted, and brought the family to London. ZoŽ went to a co-educational progressive school which left its pupils pretty much to their own devices. Work was a matter of conscience and therefore little was done. After brief spells at a Quaker school in Somerset and Hornsey College of Art, Zoe cut the procrastination and, ignoring her parents' powers of dissuasion, trained for the stage at Central School. Others in her year were Jonathan Kent, Douglas Heard, James Faulkner, Christopher Neame ('lots of good-looking, pretty boys'), Stacey Tender and Marion Lines. The career has been much more conventional to date than either Patti Love's or Jennie Stoller's, but she has gradually made her presence felt as a gifted, original comedienne, engagingly derogatory about her bright-eyed, Shirley MacLaine-style kooky good looks.
'If you've got a face like mine, you can't be a straight actress. It's awfully difficult to come to terms with the fact you're not ''pretty pretty'' when you go up to audition, so comedy just sort of happens. I always thought I should work in the same sort of Method-orientated way as my parents (my father was with Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio) and I don't think of myself as a comedienne. Just an actress. I think most actors are vulnerable and a lot of what they do stems from fear, both good work and bad. All actors I know have this extraordinary need; it's bananas, but they all have it. No-one can articulate the quality of that need. I joined in a radio conversation the other day with Dorothy Tutin and Eric Porter, and certainly neither of them could. Oh, I hate interviews, I feel so inarticulate.
'But everyone at the RSC is so bright. They sit around all day doing The Times crossword and Joe Melia is always quoting Plato. I read Pentimento by Lilian Hellman and there's a passage in that where she says that she never talks or lectures about the theatre because the theatre to her means gossip and past successes or failures. She defines the business of theatre like sailing in a ship. You fear the sea and yet you love it. That's what she calls instinct and that, to me, is dead right. There's a lot of university background stuff here at the RSC and I sometimes feel terribly insecure. But Lilian Hellman made me feel that I know the boat, and that's nice.'
Until she made her RSC debut last year in The Devil's Disciple, she played in repertory companies all over the country, including a stint with a young, individualistic Cambridge Theatre Company for nine months: 'After about six months you break the back of it and start to become freer. That's why companies are important. You start to trust each other and if you try and do something another actor will understand what you want. And if you want to make a fool of yourself, you can. We ended with French Without Tears performed by a very relaxed company. It was a very salutary experience, just what I needed.'
She has worked with Bill Hays at the Leeds Playhouse, Richard Eyre at Nottingham, and played Sally Bowles in Cabaret and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at Manchester. 'A musical for me has everything I like about the theatre: singing, dancing, the lot. It also demands the most of your talent. I had never sung before doing Guys and Dolls with Trevor Peacock and it was an extraordinary thing to discover that I could do it. I might not actually have hit all the right notes all the time - neither did NoŽl Coward - but I learned a lot about ''putting over a number'', and that was a tremendous experience. It's the nearest I've come to total release, total anarchy on a stage. That's what I loved about Illuminatus!, it's what I admire in someone like Patti Love. I yearn to be so free and comfortable on that stage that acting becomes a way of saying, ''F*ck you, this is me and this is the way I wanna do it; look at me, look at me''.'
After this excitable and attractive outburst, an enquiry as to whether or not her theatrical background, her name, had helped her career was met with a nervous silence and a long pause. 'It's a terrible cross to bear in many ways because I sometimes feel that one's always trying to prove oneself as a separate identity; and yet perhaps one's trying to be as good as, if not better than, them. But standards one sets are perhaps different; and, anyway, we're growing up in a totally different world. But I think that, with any name, unless you're extremely embarrassing as an actor, it's bound to help. When I was at Central, I thought of changing it but then, if you do, why? Are you ashamed of the name? In the end, you either land on your arse or you don't. You have to accept it and you also have to accept that you're different from your parents. There are so many good people about, you know, and I find if you can have a foot in the door... Yes, it does work for you, there's no point pretending that it doesn't. But you can and should be different. Look at Sinead Cusack, Angela Pleasance or the Redgraves. They're all individuals, all people with their own thing. It's interesting that they've all got away from it, I suppose.
'I joined the RSC at an interesting time because members of the company - people like Tony Haygrath, Bob Hoskins, Tom Conti, Patti Love - were not what we at drama school would have called ''RSC actors''. I used to go to Stratford and see people who could do it, you know, and I mean do it. It was all flowing and easy and it was all the same. Very much a veneer, a gloss. Some of us now at the RSC have a different sort of energy that has not been smoothed, shined or made acceptable. I like that. The musicality of Shakespeare can be terribly hypnotic; you can become so wooed by the music that you forget what's actually going on in the guy's head.'
ZoŽ's RSC performances in The Devil's Disciple and Ivanov last year earned her two nominations in the P&P Most Promising New Actress category for 1976. 'I think Shaw is like a piece of machinery; you just get aboard and it goes. There's nothing, really, you can do and, as Essie in The Devil's Disciple I just had to play this paranoid girl in a corner, getting hit all the time. I much preferred Ivanov, playing that pursued and flighty widow pretending not to be flattered. The character had great determination. She has balls, so there was a lot to play with. I feel more at home at the RSC with each day. The great thing about the company is that there are actors like Norman Rodway and Alan Howard who have been there a long time and done their stints. It's very helpful, although I expect I'll feel a bit of a freak for a long time yet. I'm not a ''classical'' actress though I'd very much like to be, and I want very much to be able to handle verse. There are so many things to do, so much to learn. I sometimes get worried because life is so short.' Zoe paused again, obviously not wanting to sound pretentious. No chance. We finished a lovely lunch and she skipped off for a movement class at the Dance Centre.
With thanks to Nadine for this interview.
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