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In Conversation with Zoë Wanamaker

National Theatre Platform, 2003-09-05

Held at the National Theatre's Terrace Café, and attended by several dozen members of the public, the interview with Zoe was styled as an informal discussion over afternoon tea.  The interviewer was broadcaster and journalist Al Senter.  Below I have provided an overview of the event, written with the aid of notes made shortly after it ended.

Al Senter began by introducing Zoë to the audience, giving a helpful overview of her numerous film, stage and television credits.  The interview was interspersed with questions from audience members.

As the production in which Zoe was starring at the time the interview took place, His Girl Friday naturally formed the initial focus of the discussion.  Zoe explained that she had also been offered a role in Chekov's 'fantastic' work The Three Sisters, but eventually chose to work on His Girl Friday because, she remarked, it 'smelt good'.

Her character in the production, Hildy Johnson, has a particularly interesting history, originating as a male journalist in Hecht and MacArthur's comedy The Front Page.  Rosalind Russell's star turn as Hildy, estranged wife of Walter Burns, in the classic film His Girl Friday re-defined the story.  By making Walter's ex-partner on the newspaper a woman, what does this add to the production?  'Sex!' replied Zoe.

Clearly the formula works: His Girl Friday has garnered excellent reviews.  Zoe also felt that the presence of Broadway director Jack O'Brien was essential to the show's success.  She remembered laughing a great deal during rehearsals.  Working with a group of people in this way is always exhilarating: 'acting is like a relay race, passing the baton on from actor to actor'.

Her triumph, both in the UK and on Broadway, in the title role of Electra received special mention.  After opening to instant acclaim at the Chichester Festival Theatre, then playing to packed houses at the Donmar Warehouse, Zoë described the fight to send Electra to Broadway.  The presentation of a 2500-year-old Greek play defied the archetypal theatrical hit, and many producers felt that the production was too big a risk.  Luckily, however, one producer who went to see a performance of the show at Princeton, saw the potential for success.  Electra went on to become a sell-out show.

With regards to Zoë's numerous other stage works, Mother Courage is 'a favourite'.  Zoë's character, Kattrin, was fascinating to play, as she had no lines to speak!  The ambitious set for the play, however, frequently created technical difficulties.  Mother Courage's great cart (a ton in weight) would cause the revolving platform, to which it was attached, to tilt, raising the whole set in the air.  Dame Judi Dench, who played Mother Courage in that production, and Zoe joked about this when they starred together in The Importance of Being Earnest, grateful not to be pulling the cart around!

After leaving drama school in the Seventies, Zoë initially intended to perform new writing, which held particular importance in theatrical circles when she was growing up.  Having also been cast in numerous productions of classic plays, however, she is glad to possess the skills necessary to perform a wide variety of writing.

Zoë described herself as 'fortunate enough' to have worked under almost every single artistic director of the National Theatre to date (the theatre opened in the Seventies).  In contrast to some of the more 'corporate' moods to be found in some other theatres, the staff and other actors at the National make it a fantastic place to work.  Now an NT Associate, Zoë has not yet decided exactly what to do with her newfound power, but she still has a great interest in new writing and looks forward to fulfilling her role for the theatre.

Zoë is also, of course, firmly connected to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.  Her late father, Sam Wanamaker, was the driving force behind the project to recreate it, and the theatre remains a lasting legacy.  Although, she emphasised, the Globe is a monument only to Shakespeare, it is lovely to find that visitors greatly appreciate her father's efforts.

Zoe was also asked for her opinion of the work done by the Globe's artistic director, Mark Rylance.  She is extremely pleased by the quality of the Globe's productions, and believes that her father, too, would have strongly approved of them.  Several audience members expressed a wish to watch Zoe herself perform there.  Although she hasn't ruled out the possibility altogether, she would want the play to be 'the best [...] production ever!'

The Wanamakers came to Britain when Zoë was just three years old, in order to escape McCarthyism in the United States.  This means that Zoe now feels neither entirely English, nor entirely American.  It is in the US that she actually feels most 'English'.  Why?  'Because I never know where I am!'

On average, Zoë completed only one project for television per year 'really until Love Hurts'.  The phenomenal success of this drama brought many new opportunities for her to work on television projects.

No discussion of Zoë's work for TV would be complete without mentioning the popular BBC comedy My Family, in which she stars as Susan Harper, the long-suffering wife of dentist Ben (Robert Lindsay).  Zoe recalled the fun she has working with both Lindsay and Kris Marshall (who plays the Harpers' eldest son).  She loves working with both actors and praised Kris Marshall's talent, evident in his fantastic 'creation', Nick.  While one audience member joked that he could quite easily strangle Nick, if he were to fall foul of any of his madcap antics, Zoë believes that many viewers actually identify with the character, as 'they've got one like him, or they are like him!'

The filming schedule for My Family is extremely fast-paced.  Whereas Lindsay 'has been doing sitcoms since he was twenty-one', Zoe explained that the genre is still relatively new to her.  She commented that Robert needed to be patient with her, particularly when learning lines.  They work at different speeds; he can learn a script quickly, whereas Zoë likes to take her time.

As episodes are filmed live in front of a studio audience, Zoe also mentioned the difficulty in knowing whether to play to the camera or for the audience!

Filmmaking, she said, is 'an art in itself'.  Much of the time spent on set is spent waiting, rather than acting.  For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, although the special effects for the Quidditch games and other scenes of broomstick flying are breathtaking, filming was a slow and time-consuming process, involving 'blue screen' techniques and computer-aided 'magic'.

The flying lesson sequence, filmed at Alnwick Castle, working with an eager troop of young 'wizards', was 'a joy' to make.

Zoë also discussed filming Wilde, a dramatisation of Oscar Wilde's adult life.  She chose the part of one of Oscar's few loyal friends, Ada 'Sphinx' Leverson, as she felt that Wilde was 'a good film'.  Zoe praised the stunning performances of both Jude Law (as Bosey) and Stephen Fry, seemingly born to play the title role.

Although Zoe has worked with a multitude of distinguished actors, there remain 'many, many' performers with whom she would like to star in the future.  She cited Robert De Niro as an example.  She thought that making a film with an actor like De Niro would be a 'scary', yet brilliant experience.  There are also a number of directors with whom Zoë would still like to work; and she would like to have the opportunity to act once again under the direction of Katie Mitchell (who directed The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd).  In fact, Zoë describes herself as a very 'director-based' actress, because she enjoys following a director's 'vision' for each project.

As for future roles, one audience member suggested that Zoë should tackle the female lead in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.  The suggestion met with general approval from the rest of the audience.  But as with any part, said Zoë, it is a matter of finding 'the right production'.

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