'I Don't Have the Confidence To Be a Personality'
Andrew Duncan Radio Times, 1994-05-28
Guilt, she says. That's what life is all about. Particularly as she is a very undisciplined human being. Jewish, too. And a woman. And unmarried. And middle-aged. 'You've got to have guilt, I suppose. Men don't, though, do they?'
Zoe Wanamaker smiles, curls her feet under her in a comfortable armchair and, before we discuss these weighty matters, rolls herself an ounce of Samson tobacco in liquorice paper, lights up and inhales. 'At least I don't feel guilty about smoking. I'm not going to do anything about it, although I think I should.'
There are many words to describe her, but three will do to start - refreshing, straightforward, honest. Ask any question, however dumb or intrusive, and you will not be fobbed off with muttered clichés. She will talk about marriage, children, life, death and tell you, 'I feel great anger and frustration at how we're screwing up our world.'
Suggest that actors should be wary of discussing political matter and she lets fly - in a hesitant, rather than a strident way - with a few mild obscenities, adding sparkily, 'Of course we have a bloody right to be involved. We vote, live in this country, pay taxes. If dustmen have a voice, why not actors? It's this old-fashioned British thing of not treating us with respect, as they do in Europe. Our arts should be cared for, nurtured and loved by everyone - not degraded, diminished and demoralised by that nonsense.'
This week she is seen in a new guise, reporting from Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, about work supported by Comic Relief. 'Very exciting and scary', she says, admitting she had initial doubts about her role. 'I'm not comfortable being a \"front\" person, a sort of Joanna Lumley. She does it so well and enjoys it, but my job is to act. I don't have the confidence to be a personality. I get scared quite a bit in my life, but I find when I'm apprehensive, I usually end up doing whatever it is.'
In December 1992, she spent five days in the kebelles (slums) of Addis Ababa, filming the work of Jamber Tesfaha, a woman who is organising self-help for 30,000 people. 'Millions live in shacks made out of paper, dustbin lids, plastic, anything they can get their hands on. They have no work, the crime rate is enormous, disease is huge, dead dogs lie in ditches, and sanitation is appalling. Half the population is made up of kids under 15, and although it's hot, their hands are freezing and their noses running because of illnesses. You feel so helpless. Yet in the middle of it all is this extraordinary woman with incredible commitment and energy. It's awesome to know there are thousands like her vehemently committed to helping others. That's what I found most moving.'
'Normally I'd only see these things in the telly, or read about them in the newspapers, and because you're not really there it doesn't touch you. We nice, cosy, middle class people are quite safe. We know where to put our rubbish, go to the toilet, and are educated to live with others. There is an understanding attitude that people are starving on the other side of the world and will probably die, but what can we do? The world is overpopulated so who gives a damn? But these people are suffering through no fault of their own. It's because of global greed and our thoughtlessness in not realising how we are changing the world. No one considered, until too late, what would happen if the rainforests were destroyed. There's a knock-on effect that will kill us all, and for what? We're all responsible.'
Tread carefully here. But sometimes, I suggest, there are rumblings of intellectual discontent about Comic Relief, a questioning of the motives of actors, not known for their innate modesty or altruism. She looks at me beadily. 'You mean we're another bunch of luvvies - I hate that word- thinking, \"Aren't we marvellous?\" Screw people who think like that. It's their problem. How else are you going to get the money? They've found a way of doing it that works, so why not use it? If you've got it, flaunt it.'
The middle of three daughters of the late American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period, Zoe Wanamaker was brought to England by her parents when she was 3. Her mother, Charlotte, also an actress, gave up work to raise the family and Zoe says she and her sisters (one a speech therapist, the other a lawyer) became independent as a mild reaction to her. 'She was part of that generation who didn't believe in themselves as their own person. She thought nothing existed except for Dad, really. But she's very stubborn - I've inherited that quality - and a strong woman in her own right. I don't mean to sound gooey, but she's an adorable person.'
Her father was a whirlwind of a man with an enormously strong personality and a passion to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, a dream that may finally be fulfilled next year, two years after he died from cancer, aged 74. She is a trustee and on the artistic board - 'a gesture to him I feel I must honour - but the theatre is a monument to Shakespeare and no one else.'
Her parents tried to dissuade her from becoming an actress. 'They wanted to protect me from the rejection that all actors suffer. It's particularly hard because you're selling your personality, the way you look, your whole self. But I was lucky because I always knew what I wanted to do. It crystallized for me when I was ten and we spent an idyllic summer at Stratford-on-Avon where Daddy was working. I remember the smells backstage - actors wore greasepaint in those days - and Stratford itself was such a romantic place then. Now it's like the rest of England - one huge suburb.'
She went to drama school, rep, and then the RSC, where she spent 12 years on and off, but mega success came relatively late with Love Hurts and her part as Tessa Piggott, a career-minded, feminine foil to Adam Faith's spivvy self-made millionaire Frank Carver. 'Adam and I were both astounded by its success. It's a shame the series couldn't continue, but I think it had a natural life - unless someone thinks of a good idea for another series - and it's good to quit when you're ahead. It was difficult for the writers because it's half serious, half comedy, about two different and strong personalities and based on the idea of relationships between lovers, parents and children. I think Americans and Europeans have a better idea of writing that sort of material. We seem to need \"events\", dramatic explosions, rather than life or gentle things. I loved working with Adam and care for him very much. He's so quick and multi-layered.' But is he as good an actor as he is a pop singer and financial adviser? There are those who say, no doubt with affection, that he seemed 'wooden'. 'I'm not saying anything,' she laughs.
Love Hurts brought her fame for the first time, which she enjoys now, although she found it unsettling at first to be stared at, 'particularly as people didn't realise why they were staring. It's that quizzical look that made me so cross. I felt there was something wrong with me, like I had snot on my nose, or looked like the elephant man. Now people know who I am and, so long as they're nice, it's great.'
She is equally pleased with her late-flowering sexy reputation, and jokes that it means there's hope for everyone. 'It's a great coup, isn't it.' Surprising? 'No, of course not. It's absolutely right that it should happen. Actors are very vain - like most people. We all want to be attractive and liked. That's why we all want to be famous, if only for five minutes. At least, I do. Show me an actor who says he doesn't want fame and I'll show you a liar. It gives you strength and approval and, in this business, the power to do the sort of things you want.'
She now has another success with Dead Funny, at London's Vaudeville Theatre, a brilliant comedy by Terry Johnson in which she plays a doctor's wife in her 40s, trapped in a marriage without sex or children. 'Doing the same play every night is a very hard discipline. The repetition is inhuman, silly and you can go a bit loopy sometimes. I gear my day to the evening performance, and my life stops at four so I can focus. It's a dangerous work which leads the audience in many different directions and has a resonance with every woman. All women have this dilemma: we're in touch with death every month from puberty until late middle-age. Men aren't. We're have the constant worry of that time switch when we will no longer be able to breed, whereas men are geared to procreate as long as they want.'
Now 44, she remains single, although she has had three long-term relationships, the longest lasting 11 years. 'Not getting married is a sign of the times. The world has changed so much since I was a kid, and people are more honest. I haven't married because I'm puzzled by the institution and didn't see the need for it. I wasn't brought up to believe living together out of wedlock was a sin, and I didn't want to have children and be a housewife, which is an occupation in itself. Of course, it makes people more comfortable to feel you're married. You're less dangerous than if you're available and still a loose cannon. I haven't ruled out marriage. But I don't care whether I live with a man or marry him. It's not an issue, and I've never seen a wedding ring as kudos.'
She still has an American passport but feels English after all these years here. So she's really just one of the unwashed Philistines? 'Oh, yes,' she laughs. 'I'm one of the barbarians.' We should have more of them.
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