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'Me, a Star?'

Andrew Duncan Radio Times, 1992-06-27

At lunchtime on location for the second series of Love Hurts, ZoŽ Wanamaker flops into a heap in the relative cool of her trailer, dabs moisturiser on to her famous retrousse nose and forgets to drink her lunch, a milky slimming potion.  'Adam [Faith]'s idea', she explains.  'I'm permanently trying to lose weight, but then I go and eat real food in the evening, which ruins the whole thing!'

In recent years ZoŽ Wanamaker has won a string of awards and critical accolades for her performances on stage and on TV.  This week she plays opposite veteran actress Dame Wendy Hiller, who will be 80 in August, in The Countess Alice, which leads the new Screenplay season on BBC 2.  But suggest to her that she's entered that league of actors who guarantee top ratings and ticket sales and her face knits into a cartoonish grimace.  'A star!' she growls, in the tone of one whoís just found something particularly nasty on the heel of her shoe.  'Me Ė a star?  Oh, I hate that word.  I donít know what a 'star' is.  I'm a purist, you see.  To me, stars are pure charisma, like Garbo or Monroe.  A star is someone who twinkles from afar.'

Meeting ZoŽ Wanamaker, you are struck by her feisty exuberance and her rich gravely voice.  Actressy, perhaps, but she is devoid of any showbiz affectations, and the quality that strikes you most forcibly is her eager honesty.  Her conversation bubbles with endearingly 'unstarry' anecdotes which she acts out in funny voices, with herself in the role of Queen Klutz.

When the producers took her to lunch to persuade her to do a second series, she confides, they promised her anything she wanted.  Anything!  Did she seize the day and demand diamonds or a fur?  'I asked them for a mobile phone.  Like Adam's,' she whines in plaintive self-mockery.  'Damn it!  Another missed opportunity.'

Sitting in the lotus position, her impishly attractive face reflecting every register of emotion, Wanamaker deftly rolls a cigarette and attempts to explain why her youthful traumas conspired to make her a reluctant star.  'I am a bit odd,' she declares.  'Maybe itís to do with my upbringing Ė and my looks.

'When you realise that youíre not conventionally pretty, you learn quickly how to cope.  Itís like comedians who tell you how they were puny little kids, so they learned how to be funny.  A clichť, I know, but when you're a bit odd looking, the only way out is to develop it.  Sometimes I don't think I developed it enough,' she adds, breaking into throaty laughter.  'But I would say that wouldn't I?  I mean, I'd like to look like Julia Roberts Ė wouldn't we all?  But nobody looks like Julia Roberts!'

In The Countess Alice she plays Connie, a frustrated middle-aged woman who lives in genteel poverty with her 30s society-beauty mother.  Connie resorts to refilling Fortnum and Mason tea caddies and jam pots with cheaper supermarket fare, so her countess mother may keep up appearances.  But when Connie goes to visit the German ancestral home, she discovers that their lives are an elaborate sham. Forced to rewrite her own history, she breaks down.

Surprisingly, Wanamaker claims, she found 'lots' to draw on from her own life for this part.  'When I was young, I felt I must be adopted.  I must be a foundling because my parents didnít understand me.'

Her father is the famous American actor-director, Sam Wanamaker.  'Like many children of famous actors Ė maybe the Redgraves feel the same Ė you have this terrible thing that you have to be as good, if not better, to make your parents proud of you.  And that's an incredible burden.'  She pauses, biting her lip, briefly lost for words.  'It's true,' she adds, her understatement implying the magnitude of that self-imposed spur.  'Of course, girls have this huge image of their fathers, but my father was the first method actor,' she cries.  'He was larger than life!'

She was 3 years old when her father fled the United States because he was blacklisted during the McCarthy witchhunt in the early 50s.  The family settled in London.  As a child with an American passport, she never felt she belonged.  'I felt different, classless in that American sort of way.  Now, of course in America I feel English Ė and proud of it.'

To grow up a social misfit, so that you must adapt to different social circumstances may be the ideal schooling for an actor.  But her parents initially dissuaded her from joining what they considered 'a soul-destroying profession'.

Destiny, thankfully, played a crucial role.  She failed spectacularly in a series of apprenticeships and jobs Ė as painter, dancer and audio typist.  Eventually, her parents relented, and she went to Central Drama School.  Only months after graduation, she was out of work, 'down to counting out pennies to see if I had enough for a loaf of bread or a packet of cigarettes.'  The frustration and claustrophobia of those memories, she says, fuelled her performance as Connie.

Shortly afterwards, Richard Eyre, now artistic director of the National Theatre, gave Wanamaker her first job at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh.  Later, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has worked continuously ever since.  But the burden of self doubt and insecurity plagued her for years, sometimes manifesting itself as mischievous demons, sitting on her shoulder on stage and in front of the camera, taunting her with inadequacies.

Finally, in Stratford, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company six years ago, the demons Ė what she describes as 'my blackouts' were miraculously exorcised: 'I suddenly realised I was enjoying myself.  I realised I wasn't bad...'  She pauses, as though this admission might be tantamount to hubris.  'I suppose that's why people think actors are silly, self-obsessed people because we are the instrument of our craft, so feeling comfortable with yourself is very important.  Acting is instinctive.  Like a dog or cat going round and round in a circle to make itself comfortable, I suddenly found I could sit down comfortably and enjoy it.  I gave myself a break, and actually my parents are good people.  Maybe I talk about them too much.'

Liberated from her 'blackouts', out of her parents' shadow, Wanamaker began her finest work Ė on stage, Elizabeth Proctor in Millerís The Crucible and Emilia in Trevor Nunnís Othello, and on TV, Moyra in Prime Suspect, Tessa Piggott in Love Hurts, and now Connie in The Countess Alice.  Each drama was by different writers, yet there is a striking similarity in all her roles.  Is she cornering the market in Ö 'long suffering women!' she interrupts, leaping to her feet.  'When I did Emilia in Othello, I thought, 'Oh God, not another woman who's been hard done by!'  Hand on her hip, she interrogates herself in mock TV American-ese.  'Hey! What is it about you, ZoŽ, that makes you so right for all these parts?  Is it that youíre a failure in relationships?  Oh, I donít know,' she groans with laughter.  'If only I did know.'

Richard Eyre says: 'She's the person I know who's changed least in the past 20 years.  She carries moral weight as an actress, because as a person she cannot dissemble.  She's very open, very direct and warm Ė and she wears her heart on her sleeve.  I find her terribly touching because she's so trusting.  She is cast as put upon women but, played by ZoŽ, theyíre never whinging victims because she gives them a nobility.  Everything shows in her face.  It's an enchanting face, a bit like the pantomime cat!  I want to draw whiskers on it.'

Guy Slater, producer of Love Hurts, the BBC series that propelled her to stardom, says: 'ZoŽís looks and honesty break the mould of the sexpot archetype star.  She breathed into Tessa Ė and everyone she plays Ė an extraordinary bravery coupled with an acute vulnerability.'

The ten million fans of Love Hurts will not forget her face close up, sometimes awash with mascara furrows, her nose red with dripping tears.  At the climax of The Countess Alice, her face mirrors her internal agony.  'Pain is ugly,' she insists.  'Anguish is extreme.'

For 11 years, ZoŽ Wanamaker lived with another actor.  She says she probably never got married because marriage is an oath, and an oath seemed such a huge thing to make.  'I take it all terribly seriously.'

Today she lives alone, and admits there are times, especially after bad days, when 'you do miss having someone who's on your side, who adores you no matter how bad-tempered you are.'

But ZoŽ Wanamaker, recently turned 43, is fulfilling her lifeís ambition, playing 'strong, quirky women Ė the quirkier the better.'  One might add they are women that other women identify with.  Certainly, she is adamant that, 'there should be more screen actresses like me.  Because people arenít perfect.  To me it's a relief when I see somebody in a leading role who's not drop-dead gorgeous.  It makes me feel better.  It makes me feel like a real human being.'


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