Issue Number: 113
The RA Friends ambassador is one of the most versatile stars of stage and screen. She tells Matt Wolf why art was her first career choice. Photograph by Bill Burlington
We have seen RA Magazine on the coffee table on set in your long-running TV sitcom My Family
I was just determined that the children in the show should have access to what is available in London, and those details are fantastic. My character, Susan, was a Blue Badge Guide, so she was artistically and architecturally aware.
Do you think the children in the series actually would have gone to the RA?
Susan probably would have dragged them, which is why I wanted the magazine lying around. It was also a great thing for actors to read during breaks in rehearsals.
Zoë Wanamaker last summer in her dressing room at the National Theatre between performances of The Cherry Orchard. Photo © Bill Burlington. Why are you a Friend of the RA?
It has wonderful exhibitions, and also I like its history, and the building, which is so architecturally beautiful. Fortnum & Mason is where I had my first Knickerbocker Glory, so that part of Piccadilly remains in my heart.
How do you feel knowing that more people might have watched you in a single episode of My Family than during an entire life in the theatre?
It’s just what it is. The first thing that made me aware of how powerful TV was came when I did a series in the early 1990s called Love Hurts, and the reaction on the street was unbelievable: somebody’s car bumped into another, a person walked into a lamp post – all from just turning their heads. But if people then came to The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre [last summer] because they saw me in My Family, all the better.
You’re appearing as Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach in the new film My Week with Marilyn. Do you think your days in film are numbered?
The older you get, the more difficult it gets on screen, particularly if you’re British and a woman: you get put in this category of playing villains, or funny people or weirdos. That said, I’ll play a weirdo as long as it’s interesting!
It must be strange playing an acting coach, especially because that whole phenomenon is much more American than it is British
Michelle Williams, who plays Marilyn, had her acting coach with her during the movie, and I was quite envious, really [laughs]. It’s great on a set to be given all that time and attention so that once it comes to the actual filming, you can have all that behind you without having to ask the director.
Did being Sam Wanamaker’s daughter predetermine your choice of career?
My mum was an actress as well but I think it had more to do with the nervousness of not being able to live up to the high standards that they had. That’s any child’s problem going into their parents’ profession, but I suppose it’s more public and revealing when it has to do with the arts.
And yet, despite your father’s pioneering work as founder of Shakespeare’s Globe, you have never done a play there
[Former Globe artistic director] Mark Rylance invited me to read the Prologue from Henry V, when the Queen opened the theatre. But I’m not going to work there until I feel ready.
How do you confront the burden of expectation that comes from performing Sophocles, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams?
They all write amazing roles for women. And each character comes with its own agenda. With Sophocles’ Electra, in which I played the title role in London and New York in 1997-98, it was the first time I had been given the opportunity to let rip. It was exciting to find that I had that in me.
Does it make a difference to you when you’re on stage, what the set looks like?
Absolutely. For Electra, there was an upturned table and dirt on the floor, as if a feast had been interrupted, with plates and goblets and knives all over. It was theatrically brilliant, and it certainly informed my performance. It’s all part of telling and delivering the story.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Growing up. Nobody gives you a manual.
What has been your greatest fear?
Conquering the darkest thoughts in oneself, but that’s all tied in with growing up.
What or whom do you collect?
I used to collect Poole Pottery, and I have paintings by Sean O’Casey’s son Breon, who died in May.
Does art inspire or uplift you?
So much so that I actually studied art for a year at Hornsey Art College when I was 18; it was all part of trying to avoid being an actress.
What was your art epiphany?
When I was a child my father took me to the Tate on a Sunday just as everybody was leaving. It was the first time I saw Matisse; that was an eye-opener. I then went to Paris and saw Cézanne’s still life, Apples and Oranges (c.1899) and I burst into tears.
Do you have a favourite RA exhibition and why?
Late Monet was fantastic. And the Hammershøi: that sense of light and space and simplicity in his paintings, yet they are so full of stories.
What is your favourite colour?
Blue. I love it in all its forms – French blue, electric blue.
There is a photograph of you by Jillian Edelstein on display in the National Portrait Gallery. By whom might you like to be painted?
David Hockney RA because his portraits are so extraordinary. Whistler would have been another: his women look so tall and elegant.
What do you do to relax?
Radio 4 relaxes me more than anything.