As calm and collected as I would like to sound, I am nonetheless nervous when Zoë Wanamaker, household name and great of the acting world, calls me for our phone interview. I’m sitting on the floor of the English Faculty, in the quietest spot I can find. Part of me is irritated by the loud shuffling of people beside me as I strain to hear Zoë over the dodgy phone speaker, but her laid-back affability puts me completely at ease. The glamorous eccentricity I imagine at the other end of the line is a far cry from my own hunched and dishevelled appearance, having abandoned Edmund Spenser in the lecture theatre to talk to Zoë, the Olivier Award-winning actor with innumerable credits to her name, who I have admired for some time.
Zoë’s relationship with the acting world has been a long one. Daughter of Sam Wanamaker, the visionary mind behind the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe, and Canadian actress Charlotte Holland, Zoë’s life has never been based too far from a theatre. Shortly after her birth, her father discovered he had been blacklisted by McCarthy for alleged communist sympathies; thereafter, they remained in England. Zoë was not actively encouraged to follow her parents’ example in the acting world during her childhood. ‘My parents didn’t want me to do it… they were both very worried about this business of rejection’. I suggest that, yes, it’s true that you need to have a thick skin in the acting world, but Zoë doesn’t agree. ‘I don’t have a thick skin at all’. This is the reasoning behind her initial art school education, where she completed a pre-diploma course. She doesn’t seem to have any regrets about this side of her schooling, but she doesn’t consider it formative; she doesn’t exude the same passion she does when she speaks about acting. ‘It was a solitary thing’, she says, adding that she didn’t feel confident enough to continue this aspect of the creative arts. Next for Zoë was a secretarial course, the advert for which on the tube promised ‘a good job fast in three months’. This course, incidentally, was how she discovered her dyslexia. Finally, after becoming a ‘girl Friday’ in a casting director’s office, where she adds: ‘they care more about what you look like’ than anything, she went to drama school.
I wonder if her parents’ lasting legacy had an impact on her as she trained to become an actor, and whether she feels the pressure of it now. ‘Yes’, she pauses, ‘yes, definitely’. Alumni of some of the first classes of Strasberg, often called the ‘father of method acting in America’, Zoë’s parents’ success undeniably had some effect on their daughter as she chose to pursue the same career. ‘Dad was one of the first method actors to come to this country in the theatre’, and left an impression on the theatre scene that endures to this day. The impression I get from Zoë is not one of imitation, however, or of an artificially fabricated pastiche of her parents’ styles. She embraces the talent and expectation established in her parentage, but seems to have forged her own path, veering away from ‘Zoë Wanamaker: daughter of acting legends’ but more towards ‘Zoë Wanamaker: actor in her own right’. She references the Method acting style made famous by her father and his contemporaries, but laments the unhelpful style of teaching when she was at drama school: ‘when I asked at drama school whether we could learn the Method, they said: ‘no, go and read a book’, which is not how you do it… you learn by doing’. She did learn by doing, joining theatre companies as part of a repertory theatre, where she played at the Oxford Playhouse for six months, among other nationwide locations; a ‘wonderful’ opportunity to practise beyond the ostensibly restrictive bonds of a drama school education. Zoë’s passion is for the tangibility of drama; there is no abstraction to Zoë’s love for theatre, rather it is something to engage with, to converse with. She lauds the importance of doing, of getting involved. Learning something as dynamic as acting from a textbook is no way to do it. Acting is artisan, a skill to be crafted, gradually and lovingly, by hand.
A combination of passion and craft inevitably brings me to discussion of her father’s passion project: the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe on the Southbank. I ask her if she has ever considered acting there: ‘I’ve considered it and decided not to… it’s too much pressure on me and probably on them’. The only time Zoë has acted on the Globe’s stage was during its opening ceremony in front of the Queen, when then-artistic director Mark Rylance asked her to play the Chorus of Shakespeare’s Henry V. She is anxious to make the distinction between her own goals and her father’s. ‘I’m not my dad’ she says, distancing herself as an actor from the project she has no filial obligation to continue, without separating herself from it completely: ‘it’s a fantastic space.’ I ask Zoë’s opinion about the recent controversy surrounding the departure of Emma Rice, the previous artistic director of the Globe, from her position. It was only two seasons after her debut that the board Rice was chosen by decided they preferred the more traditional approach to Shakespearean theatre, resistant to her idiosyncratic use of lighting and sound. Rice’s departure invited conversation about the modernisation of traditional theatre, especially Shakespeare, and I am interested in Zoë’s stance. She takes no ownership of the theatre, trusting the board and artistic director, but implies that Rice’s productions’ more modern features are an indispensable aspect of her style, ‘and the board should have recognised that’. Zoë maintains that this may not follow the edict of the Globe, which began as a return to stark, open-air theatre as it would have been while Shakespeare was writing, but ‘the Globe is an experimental place and should always be so’. In terms of more experimental works, she is refreshingly open. ‘Like all art, it’s a matter of your own taste, and if it’s done well, it’s done well’. Zoë seems to recognise the theatre as a mutable form, reluctant to resign it to traditional sensibilities that could potentially stunt its growth, adaptation and metamorphosis within the artistic and cultural scene.
I had read before our interview that Zoë claimed: ‘theatre is the lifeline of this country’. I ask her if she can elaborate, and she replies with endearing curtness: ‘not really’. ‘Art is a lifeline’, she says, ‘it is a reflection of our country’. In the wake of arts subjects being cut from curriculums and their value questioned, Zoë’s opinions about art’s primacy in our culture as we know it are uplifting. ‘Language particularly is very important. What’s interesting is that language has diminished where politicians are concerned’. Zoë has said in the last ten minutes that she wouldn’t get political, but this demonstrates how irrevocably art is linked to politics and the world around us. We are reminded of how relevant it continues to be, especially in schools.
‘The joy of the English language is delicious when it is given to us with enthusiasm and energy… and it all starts with education. Kids now are allowed less and less to enjoy and relish language’
Zoë maintains that ‘theatre is a lifeline because it allows the brain to work in different ways other than a syllabus, and that’s what we need’. Theatre is expressive and experimental, and ‘we have to keep that going, otherwise our imagination dries up and shrivels… we’re just robots’. Hamlet’s existential dread, Lear’s nihilistic defeat or Juliet’s fatal passion are all useful, in Zoë’s eyes, for our theatrical and cultural education: ‘these stories are all about the human condition’. Talking to Zoë, you cannot lose the sense of the big, dramatic, picture.
Zoë’s most recent performance was in ‘Two Ladies’, written by Nancy Harris, at the Bridge Theatre. Rooted in the political opinions Zoë and I skirt around, the play is a visceral, brutal cross-examination of the human condition. It is a dissection, but instead of an operating room, we are presented with a claustrophobic skyscraper office, in which Harris has the (semi-fictionalised) First Ladies of France and the USA trapped, circling each other like lions. I ask Zoë if she believes we have a responsibility to use theatre as a platform for exploring the political milieu. ‘I think it’s a discussion. The play is what we perceive of them. They are called ‘trophy wives’ and that’s it… Melania Trump is treated like a stupid woman and Mrs Macron is viewed simply as an older woman who had an affair with an 18-year-old boy… it’s a discussion about what’s underneath those characters.’
The women’s characters are built on assumption, formed by each other, and by us as the audience. I went to see the play the next Saturday on its closing night; I scribbled quotes that particularly caught my attention throughout. Zoë’s character, the First Lady of France, says the two of them are ‘wives with tiny bags and big husbands’. It is a script that plays on this inevitable partnership between politics and performance, in this case gender as well as global politics. Upon this suggestion, Zoë says: ‘women are side-lined into categories of: how old they are, and what they’re wearing’, and the immaculate designer skirt-suits and handbags, representative of this veneer of the feminine paradigm, paradoxically reveal that ‘we know nothing about them… at all’.
Though implicit, it is obvious that the women are based on real people, and I ask if she has ever played any real-life characters. Her most recent example is her portrayal of Stevie Smith in ‘Stevie’ in 2014. ‘I did a lot of visual work, a lot of background on what was going on at the time… not only politically, but literally, where she lived, how she lived.’ The fascinating eccentricities of Stevie Smith, I imagine, are hard to master. I ask Zoë if she feels she needs to find something within her characters that she can relate to in an effort to better portray their individual peculiarities: ‘you just get a smell of somebody, or an idea… it always goes through you, as you Emily, or me Zoë, so it’s your interpretation, your imagination… you can’t be them, because that would be silly, but you can only interpret them, and hope that their energy goes into what you’re doing.’ She admires playwright Hugh Whitemore’s ‘immaculate’ research for his scripts, and urges me to read some. I ask her if she has ever turned her own hand to writing.
‘Do you think you ever will?’
She admits the vital role of the actor in workshopping the script. Before the run of ‘Two Ladies’, cuts were made to the script after exploring it, and discovering problems that were only realised through acting. I’m reminded of Zoë’s doctrine: learning through doing. She feels the performance changes every night, and in her, acting seems organic and natural.
My final question is obvious, but necessary, I feel, in conversation with a theatrical oracle. I ask if she has any advice for young people looking to enter the acting world. She suggests finding something more practical you enjoy too, because ‘you need to eat’. However, she is far from discouraging in regard to new dramatic talent. Lamenting that, with TV, ‘it’s hard to get young people into the theatre to see how exciting it is, how interesting it is, to listen to the language’, Zoë is obviously passionate about the continuation of the art form she loves. As she says, ‘it’s magical’, and my thirty-minute conversation with her convinces me that, despite her acting pedigree and experience, all she really wants to do is share that magic with us.