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Zoƫ in conversation at JW3: 'You have to keep going forward all the time'

8 December 2013 19:35

LondonĀ’s new Jewish community centre, JW3, hosted a lively discussion on Thursday evening, when ZoĆ« was interviewed by her friend, the TV and radio presenter Jeni Barnett.  Around two hundred people came to this Ā‘Out of the BoxĀ’ event, in order to hear ZoĆ« talk about her life, career and what being Jewish means to her.

As Jeni explained at the beginning of the discussion, she and ZoĆ« were born only weeks apart in 1949, and have both worked extensively in the arts and media.  They have particularly fond memories of acting together in Omnibus documentary 'The Story of Pantomime' (1976), during which they learned the secrets of comic timing, alongside Bob Hoskins, Duncan Faber and others. 

JeniĀ’s first question for ZoĆ«, who has worked as an actress for more than forty years, was characteristically forthright: what are ZoĆ«Ā’s regrets?

ZoĆ« made clear that she believes it is important not to harbour regrets, because they will only hold you back in life.  'You have to keep going forward all the time', and 'you have to accept who you are,' she emphasised.  If ZoĆ« regrets anything, it is the fact 'that I didn't accept who I was earlier'.  In addition, ZoĆ« commented that she has learned the hard way that Ā‘irony does not work in printĀ’, and so is now particularly mindful of this during interviews.

Jeni pointed out that ZoĆ«, as the daughter of the famous actor and director Sam Wanamaker, was 'born into a name and profession'.  Her background, however, has not shielded her from the unpleasant aspects of the acting industry.  ZoĆ« emphasised that, at times, the life of an actor is filled with 'crippling' rejection; sometimes the industry is 'not a kind world' to inhabit.

Because ZoĆ«'s parents knew how brutal the acting profession could be, they encouraged their daughter to 'try other things first'.  As ZoĆ« explained, this included directing her creative energies towards an alternative pursuit, by studying at Hornsey College of Art.  Perhaps the most valuable lesson she learned there was how 'to draw with one line rather than a hundred'. 

Although ZoĆ« enjoyed studying at Hornsey, she realised that acting was her real passion - training to be an actor felt like her 'vocation'.  So that she would have another skill to fall back on, during periods when acting work was not forthcoming, Zoe enrolled on a speed typing course.  Although its slogan suggested that anyone who completed the course could 'get a good job in three months', ZoĆ« had a very different experience, perhaps partly as a result of her dyslexia.  After six months of study, she was still learning to speed-type and not enjoying the process.

The course was followed by a spell as Ā‘a Girl Friday in a casting directorĀ’s officeĀ’, where ZoĆ« became familiar with the harsh realities of the acting industry.  This experience, she noted, Ā‘nearly put me offĀ’ becoming an actor altogether.

Fortunately, ZoĆ« remained determined to act, and earned a place at the Central School of Speech & Drama towards the end of the Sixties.  When she left drama school, her father recommended that she hone her craft in repertory theatre.  In ZoĆ«'s words, repertory is where people 'get their grounding as actors', because they 'learn by doing' a wide range of plays in a wide range of venues.  For example, ZoĆ« remembers performing The Cherry Orchard in Edinburgh 'with some fantastic actors', such as Antonia Pemberton and Penelope Wilton, as part of a 1971 production directed by Richard Eyre.

As ZoĆ« embarked on her professional acting career, Sam WanamakerĀ’s work to reconstruct the Globe Theatre in London was well underway.  ZoĆ« remarked that her father, on his first visit to the city in the 1940s, 'could not understand why there was nothing there' to celebrate the place in which Shakespeare's plays were originally performed.  As a result, Sam had resolved to rebuild the Globe, which now stands on the South Bank and has very recently been joined by an indoor theatre, named the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

ZoĆ« commented that she has never been as outgoing as her father.  'It just wasn't in me to do that,' she said.  ZoĆ« remembers being approached, years ago, in an Edinburgh pub by an aggressive man who wanted to direct his anger at Sam Wanamaker, and she 'couldnĀ’t take that on'.

While ZoĆ« may not be an extrovert, 'there is something very centred' about her, Jeni observed.  This is reflected in ZoĆ«'s world view; like her parents, ZoĆ« believes in Ā‘a multi-cultural, multi-faithĀ’ society.

ZoĆ« finds that being in the public eye can be challenging, because she is not particularly confident.  For example, she noted that she 'didnĀ’t feel articulate enough' to become a personality in the media.  'Will you now accept that you are a brilliant actor?' Jeni enquired, to cheers from the audience.  'I probably don't believe it,' ZoĆ« replied.  'As women, I think it's very hard to have that self-belief,' she added.  For example, ZoĆ« commented that when she saw a clip of herself in The Cherry Orchard (2011), during the National TheatreĀ’s 50th anniversary celebrations, she immediately focused on aspects of her performance that she didn't particularly like. 

When pressed, ZoĆ« remarked that 'I do believe I have something', and emphasised that she greatly enjoys acting.  When playing a character, she strives for what she describes as the 'hovercraft moment', at which point 'you are it and it is you'.  When asked by Jeni if she views acting as 'a service' to other people, ZoĆ« agreed that she does, to some extent.  'YouĀ’re passing on storytelling and great writing' to audiences, ZoĆ« explained, as if you are 'a cog' in a great theatrical machine.  'I love going to the theatre', because 'you just become so involved' in the action.  She cites the National TheatreĀ’s recent production of Othello, starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, as a particularly captivating show. 

In 1959, at Stratford, ZoĆ«'s father played Iago alongside Paul Robeson's Othello, in another acclaimed production of Shakespeare's tragedy.  'It was a big year for me', ZoĆ« recalled, because it marked a 'turning point in my life'.  From that point onwards, ZoĆ« was determined to become an actress.

Another turning point came several years ago, when ZoĆ« explored her family history for the documentary series Who Do You Think You Are.  Jeni wondered if the process of making the programme had changed ZoĆ«.  After thinking carefully, ZoĆ« agreed that the 'very visceral' experience of exploring her cultural and religious background 'did change me'.  In particular, realising how many Jewish people had fled from the pogroms and made the extremely difficult journey to the US, in order to make new lives for themselves, had a 'powerful' effect on her.  ZoĆ« praised the strong sense of self-improvement and integrity that is evident in many people in the US.

Audience members posed questions about a diverse range of topics.  When asked what part she would most like to play, ZoĆ« explained that she 'would love to have played Juliet'.  Who is her favourite leading man?  'All of them; they've all been lovely.'  Adam Faith, for example, ZoĆ«'s co-star in the enormously successful drama Love Hurts (1992-4), 'was a charmer' and 'great' to work alongside.  Similarly, ZoĆ« cannot choose just one favourite actress, because she admires so many, including Maggie Smith, who she describes as a 'consummate' performer, as well as Judi Dench, Lesley Manville, Harriet Walter and others.

A particularly memorable question came from the audience member who asked ZoĆ« which of her TV or film characters she would most like to play on stage.  ZoĆ« chose Sophie from Baal (1982), a disturbing drama with a 'really good director', Alan Clarke.  David Bowie played the title role in that TV production, and ZoĆ« remarked that 'we got on very well'.

ZoĆ«'s backstage rituals include completing physical and vocal warm-ups.  'I usually get to the theatre at least two hours before a performance', in order to have plenty of time to prepare for it.  Similarly, when filming, ZoĆ« likes to exercise, perhaps with a yoga routine, before going into make-up.  Jeni encouraged ZoĆ« to share some of her vocal warm-up techniques with the audience, but ZoĆ« explained that it is a 'private' process.

When Zoe is relaxing, she enjoys Belvedere Vodka Martinis.  She commented that she was introduced to them by her husband, Gawn Grainger, and they are a great way to unwind in the evenings.

The mood of the discussion at JW3 can perhaps best be summed up by the audience member who commented, as the event was drawing to a close, that Zoƫ's work has 'given a lot of people a lot of pleasure'.

I'm sure, like me, you can't wait to see what Zoƫ does next!

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