I feel pretty self-assured in characterising Dame Harriet Walter as a “familiar favourite” of British drama. With a prolific tenure at the RSC in her earlier career, and numerous television and screen credits under her belt, she is a performer of enormous technical skill, yet also one keen to surprise. Pinning Harriet Walter down into one category, I learn, is an almost impossible task. The characters she most enjoys playing, and watching, she tells me over the phone, are those with ‘a bit of mystery so you don’t know what makes me tick and you don’t make a judgement about me because you don’t know me.’ We’re talking about the limitations older female actors face with the roles available to them in the latter stages of their career, something Walter has spoken about openly in the past. Whilst maintaining the pressure is important, ‘audience’s sensibility’ is changing, she argues, and for older actress’ there are a growing number of more rounded roles which ‘don’t have everyone go “Oh I see she’s the jealous bitch” or “she’s the crabby old school mistress”. Just inject a contradiction into it and something that makes you go “oh, maybe I was wrong”. That in itself is shifting the ground.’
However, Walter is keen for this conversation to include the broad range of older female actresses’ contending with these issues. ‘It would sound churlish if I were complaining about that because I’m having such great roles myself’ she muses. There’s a level of truth to this, she is currently starring in three critically acclaimed television shows: Killing Eve, Belgravia and The End. Her role as the eccentric Russian gymnast and assassin trainer Dasha in Killing Eve seems particularly refreshing to her. ‘I was sitting around in my silk and corsets filming Belgravia in Scotland and my agent called and said “How’s your Russian?”’ she recalls. Already an admirer of the show’s previous seasons, she speaks with palpable excitement as she remembers landing the mysteriously described role. ‘I just went into ecstasy’ she laughs. ‘Kind of just the ticket. I do the Russian rather over the top, but I’d been so sustained and prim in my corset I was rather enjoying just letting loose.’
She makes a memorable entrance into the show’s third season; after turning up as an uninvited guest to the wedding of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle, both characters engage in prolonged and supremely choreographed brawl. The chaotic ruckus which seemingly follows Dasha everywhere she goes is a world away from her performance as the sharply austere Countess Brockenhurst in Belgravia. Yet Walter finds a strong appeal in her character’s sophisticated but indifferent persona, Dasha is someone who ‘doesn’t give a toss what people think of her’ she tells me. ‘She’s not conforming to anything she’s just living in Barcelona as this absolute one off wearing crazy clothes. You don’t sense that she’s part of a community or has any friends she goes to have cups of tea with, she alienates everyone around her and so I felt that I could behave as badly and as extravagantly as I liked.’
Walter chuckles frequently as we talk about Dasha. She seems to hold a general fondness for her more rebellious and misbehaving characters, the “bad girls” of her repertoire. Another darkly comic role she’s currently playing is Edie Henley in Sky Atlantic’s drama-comedy The End, who is the epitome of the ‘badly behaved granny’ as Walter describes. Much of the charm and fun of Dasha and Edie lies in the audience’s inability to completely know these characters, they are constantly full of surprises. In this way they are not completely dissimilar from Walter herself, who went down what was then a more unconventional route in her pursuit of a career in acting. Born in 1950 to the family who founded the Times newspaper, she turned down an offer from Oxford to study languages, instead deciding to pursue acting. ‘I was quite good academically and I knew that’s what my grandfather in particular wanted for me’ she considers, when I ask her about her initial steps into performance. As the niece of acclaimed actor Sir Christopher Lee, it wasn’t a completely alien world to her, yet to make the decision to pursue this particular path was still a rebellious one. She recalls that her grandfather in particular ‘hated the idea of me being an actor, he was very opposed to it and just thought of it as a waste of a brain. And luckily… I think my father felt a bit rebellious towards his own father and decided to help me.’
She was turned down by drama schools five times before she eventually won a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. ‘I’ve never regretted it really’, for her it’s a job in which the challenges and excitements are not always apparent to the outside world: ‘quite often you have to research a period of history or learn a lot about one particular discipline for the job, it’s very eclectic. It’s not years of studying one field, which of course that’s a wonderful thing, I just don’t think I was cut out for that.’
It is in theatre in which Harriet Walters early career began to flourish, and she won critical acclaim in her numerous performances with the RSC. She first joined the company for its performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1979, and went on to star in the company’s productions of All’s Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline and Twelfth Night to name a handful. Walter’s experiences in working with Shakespeare’s plays, however, are far from conventional. Between 2012 and 2016, she took on a number of Shakespeare’s roles written for men, starring alongside all-female casts in productions which were intended to completely disrupt how these classical texts were thought of. They are invigorating, highly necessary performances, and since she had worked on so many of Shakespeare’s plays before with the RSC, I questioned if it was something she’d felt an urge to do for a long time.
She had in fact, she tells me, been working with texts such as Julius Caesar and The Tempest and tackling their male roles for some time, if not in the public eye. She recalls the workshops she did with founding member of the RSC, John Barton, in which she would take on Shakespeare’s men to dissect the language of male characters’ speeches and what it revealed. Through these master classes, she identifies, Shakespeare’s male heroes were not so far removed from the heroines she performed professionally. There was ‘particularly one point when I was doing Hamlet, and I thought what is so clear is that this is a human being speaking. The gender, for the most part, is irrelevant.’ Her performances in all female productions of male dominated plays and tackling roles such as Brutus by offering audience’s a new perspective was a ‘great’ opportunity for changing how we think about Shakespeare ‘because it acknowledges that women can think those things and be part of those decisions.’ For Walter personally, it was an opportunity to perform the language she had so much knowledge of, ‘a lifetime really, thirty something years in speaking Shakespeare’s verse’ and experience it in a unique way.
In a previous interview, she acknowledged that performing the role of Prospero brought her ‘closer to myself than I have ever been’. Questioning Walter on this, she explains the openness and vulnerability the performance relied upon, ‘we were wearing very basic t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms, so we didn’t have a lot of trappings and were really quite raw and naked in a way.’ Being left with the ‘sense of the language’ to embody the struggle with admitting ‘it’s time to bow out it’s not my go any longer’. This closeness with a character and the language of a performance is an exception, and Walter recalls previous statements that she has not identified with a lot of the characters she’s played. When addressing functional or ‘literal’ parts, there remains an element of separation, ‘you think “this isn’t my world, I don’t belong here, I’m pretending”.’
When looking over Harriet Walter’s career, it is clear that she has played her fair share of austere and authoritative roles, and in performances from Sense and Sensibility to The Crown she captures a convincing and commanding sternness. I ask if this is a character trait she particularly enjoys delving into ‘I’ve always felt very at odds with those characters unless they’re written humorously,’ she reveals. ‘I find them quite boring to play’. Acting is still often about looks, she tells me, and in many cases the roles she receives and the process of casting can often be visually driven. ‘I’m not pretending that looks don’t come into it, and I think I probably look naturally in repose. I don’t look like anybody’s cuddly granny so I come out as the stern granny.’ Recognising “the real Harriet Walter” in her past performances would be a difficult endeavour, yet this is something she seems to relish. It’s with a slight coyness that she admits ‘I very rarely have played anything terribly close to who I am. So you’ve got to keep guessing as to what I’m really like because I’m not really like any of those people.’
There is frequently a specific curiosity between the actor and their method or the means by which they take on the entire being of another person as a part of their everyday life. With her classical background and formative training, I’m curious if this is a part of how Walter constructs her performances. ‘I’m not a great one for “process’” in terms of I always do this first’ she considers slowly. With each individual role comes different requirements, and she reflects that part of the enjoyment of getting to grips with a character is the variety it offers. ‘I kind of capitalise on a bit of chaos’ she tells me, ‘it’s very much horses for courses, and I let my instincts tell me what it is I most need to do’. She speaks about the various rehearsal processes she undertakes for roles with openness, for Walter it’s a system of working with those around you, being receptive to their ideas but also knowing when to stand your ground, knowing when your interpretation should not be shrugged off. I suggest that her descriptions of the characters she’s played have sounded quite emotive, from an outsider’s perspective it seems like a process of connection. This is something she possesses with an almost instinctive quality, ‘I never grew out of that,’ she responds. ‘That kind of fantasising of looking at a portrait in a gallery of a woman in 1500-and-something, and going “what can I learn from that face, what was she thinking”’.
Acting invokes a kind of resistant curiosity in the world, and is something Walter has always been ‘fairly obsessed with’. She considers that interest in people a foundational part of her person, and she paints herself as ‘very nosy, very inquisitive, wanting to live lots of different lives not just my own.’
Walter does not come off as a closed-off person, but I notice that this is one of the few times she actively describes herself in our conversation, rather than pushing herself away from the character traits which identify many of her performances. Having performed such a wide range of characters throughout her career, it’s difficult to define her as an actor, she eludes categorisation. However this, I feel, is just how she likes it. As she mentioned to me earlier in our conversation, there is a thrill in not fully revealing ‘what makes me tick’.
“Does big budget TV like Killing Eve allow you to build character arcs more than traditional film?” – Milly Hitching
Yes, is the answer. Particularly there’s more range for non-central characters in a long running series. You can keep a lot of characters plots going at the same time, as per Killing Eve you’ve got four main characters who are ongoing and develop and take different strands of the plot. Whereas in a two hour movie, it’s mainly got to focus on the central story and sub plots don’t get such a look-in, so characters surrounding the main character there’s not time to explore them as much as an actor would like.