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Seeing the Funny Side

Nicholas Monson Telegraph Sunday Magazine, 1980-03-16

Seeing the Funny Side image #0 Seeing the Funny Side image #1

Zoë Wanamaker has inherited a famous name and is enhancing it with a flair for comedy, says Nicholas Monson.

Zoe Wanamaker was astounded when the Society of West End Theatres bestowed on her their Best Actress in a Revival award for her performance in Once in a Lifetime.  But Miss Wanamaker is by nature self-doubting.  It came as no surprise at all to Royal Shakespeare Company Director Trevor Nunn.  'Zoe's comic instinct,' he says, 'is undeniably brilliant.'

This is a considerable accolade from a major director for an actress just turned 30.  Yet the intoxicant of success has made no apparent impression on Miss Wanamaker.  Her manner is considered, almost guarded.  She is self-effacing and hates interviews.  'I am not articulate', she explains.  'I feel I can't express myself.  Actors often tend to talk themselves into knots when interviewed, thus confirming people's worst prejudices about them.  Actors are actually very intelligent people.  It's just that they are misinterpreted.'  She glances warningly.

Like both her sisters, Zoe Wanamaker has inherited the good looks of her father, the craggy actor and director Sam Wanamaker.  She might not be classically pretty, but she is certainly attractive.  Hers is a face with character: every nuance of her feeling can be read on it.  But she has ambivalent feelings about her features.  'When I first started out you could see directors thinking how odd I looked and wondering how they could cast me - if at all.'  But her recent success suggests that her beguiling pixie face has actually helped her career.

Another asset is her theatre background.  She was born in New York, one of three daughters of Sam and Charlotte Wanamaker.  In the mid fifties the family emigrated to England.  Sam Wanamaker has no choice: he was one of the many Hollywood stars blacklisted during the McCarthy 'purge' in America.

The family moved to Hampstead.  Sam Wanamaker, free to continue in his chosen profession, directed and acted in many films and plays and opened the Liverpool Theatre.  He directed the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and appeared in Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines.  His most recent work was in the controversial television series Holocaust.  He is now making a new film in the US.

Growing up in such an atmosphere undoubtedly gave Zoe Wanamaker a valuable insight into the profession.  'As an actor,' she admits, 'I grew up privileged.  It also helped me when I began.  Unlike other actors, who often have to face anxiety and disapproval from their parents for choosing such a profession, mine were sympathetic to the business.'

She was educated at King Alfred's, a Hampstead co-educational school, and then a Quaker boarding school in Sidcot, Somerset.  She was a difficult child, she says.  'As a character, I was always dramatic.  I fancied myself as something romantic.  It still holds true: I have always liked being other people more than myself.  And that really answers why I chose to become an actress - because I never wanted to grow up.'

After school, Zoe Wanamaker tried her hand at painting.  She attended Hornsea [sic] Art College.  'I had a certain talent, but I knew I'd never be a good painter.'  At the end of the year she decided instead to take a speedwriting course.  'I was there for six months and I still hadn't qualified.  So I went along to Brook Street Bureau and they gave me a job as a Dictaphone typist.  Though I didn't have to take anything down I was terrible at the job.  I could never spell, so I was permanently consulting a large dictionary.'  Eventually she found a niche suitable for her dubious secretarial skills: she typed out addresses in a shed at the back of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square.

But eventually she took the plunge and was accepted as a drama student by the Central School.  She was learning there the crafts of movement and voice control, but Zoe Wanamaker felt she needed practical experience.  During her final year she left Central to take up a job in Bromley as an assistant stage manager.

As an apprentice she went on to run the gamut of the repertories - Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham and Farnham.  Despite her talent and background her rise to success was not without its sobering episodes.  'The worst moment in my career,' she says, 'was when I took over someone else's part in Much Ado About Nothing.  I was expected to behave and play my part exactly like my predecessor.  I was not allowed to improvise or develop the part within myself at all.  At the time the director was in New York.  I was told that only if I paid for all the telephone calls would the company be prepared to consult him.'

One of the close observers of Zoe Wanamaker's career is Trevor Nunn.  'I saw her when she first auditioned for the RSC.  She was refused.  But even then I admired her for her tremendous skills.  I remember thinking at the time that she had more skill than instinct.  She then auditioned again, successfully, and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company three years ago.  She showed new development.  She was giving herself over totally to instinct.  It has made her marvellous to work with.'

Her openness and sensitivity carry the obvious danger of vulnerability.  'I think of her protectively,' says Nunn.  She is not in the least bit political or manipulative in her dealings, which is remarkable.  Emotionally she is extremely vulnerable, very trusting.  Everything that she feels shows on her face.  She is very pure, very uncomplicated and very direct.  At times she reminds me of Judi Dench.'  Nunn also says 'she brings zest and delight' to rehearsals.


Zoe finds she has very little spare time at the moment.  When she is free during the day she usually attends movement classes, and loves watching television, 'especially the rubbishy bits'.

She claims her recent success has made no real difference to her life.  'I don't really feel any manifestation of success, because I still struggle with money.  I never save it.  I don't own a flat or a car.  And like I've always done, I spend a lot of time socialising.  Perhaps my one regret about choosing theatre as a profession, apart from the odd hours, is that my circle of friends is somewhat limited.  Actors develop a convenient shorthand way of communicating.'

Nor does Miss Wanamaker think that her success has helped her confidence.  'On the contrary,' she says, 'I have found, like a lot of actors, that the longer I do it, the more frightened I become.'

But Zoe Wanamaker's self-effacement belies her compelling powers on stage.  Indeed her riveting performances as the prostitute Toine in Piaf and the peppy May Daniels in Once in a Lifetime have been so well received that she was quite unable to predict her plans.  Both productions have been well extended into 1980.

'A comic instinct is born, not bred,' says Trevor Nunn.  'You either know how to make things funny or you don't.  Zoe Wanamaker does.'  The accolades now bestowed, all Zoe Wanamaker has to do is play it out.

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