This year’s Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award recipient Juliet Stevenson may not be able to be in Stratford in person, but she joined Playbox Theatre for an online chat, about her acting experiences (and her teenage stalking of Ian Richardson!). Interview by Calum Finlay and the young actors at Playbox.
Where are you spending lockdown?
I’m in the Suffolk countryside, my husband [anthropologist Hugh Brody] has some health issues so he absolutely must be kept safe. So I’m lucky to be here.
You were meant to be in The Doctor in the West End, how is it not doing it?
It’s very sad, but we did play it at the Almeida and made it to the Adelaide Festival in Australia, which ran for two weeks and then came back here poised to go. It’s a fantastic company and I really miss them. I’m a bit sore about it but everyone has got things that we are disappointed to have missed – all those weddings.
You’ve said that it is important that we treat 500-year-old plays as new ones…
Absolutely – that is my mantra. When I was 20 and went to the RSC on the bottom rung – you know, ‘shut up and do what you are told’ sort of contract – even then I thought why are we doing all these plays constantly, going round the canon? Why are we doing that if we’re not saying each time what this play has got to do with how we are living now? What is the point in doing any of them if it’s not speaking to the times we’re living in? So that’s why I personally have never had any interest in finding out how Shakespeare did the plays in his time, or ending the play with a jig. Fine if that is your thing, I understand it and respect it, but that is absolutely not my bag. Theatre is about now, live events, it’s about the room of people you are with on the night, it’s about how it resonates now and if it doesn’t let’s not bother with it.
When we were in Hamlet together [Calum and Juliet were in the 2017 production at the Almeida], director Rob Icke rewrote it and made it a more streamlined play for our times, and I think that’s great.
You gave up a place at Bristol Uni aged 18 to study at RADA, would you do the same again now?
Everyone said I would go to university – it was suggested I did English and drama, and I was chuffed when I got on it.
I took a year off, and I had one extraordinary moment where I woke up, a light bulb came on and I thought what the hell am I doing reading drama as an academic subject at university? I had never wanted to teach it, I wanted to act. So I auditioned at RADA. I never thought I would get in, but when I got the acceptance letter I knew absolutely it was what I wanted to do. Then my life went from being blurred to a sharp focus. It was so clear what I wanted to do.
What were those first days at the RSC like?
I did a lot of sort of uninteresting walk-on roles but they did train me up, there were sonnet reading and voice classes; David Suchet, John Hall and amazing voice coach Cis Berry held workshops. So you continued to train and that’s not the case now, which is shame.
Have you ever doubted yourself in your acting career?
Even though I’ve worked and been reasonably lucky I’ve still had a lot of really dark moments – what am I doing? What’s it for? Is what I’m doing valuable? Am I useful to society? I think that partly self-doubt is an important ingredient in what we do but total lack of confidence is not helpful, so I think you have to be confident in yourself.
I would say to young actors you can only do this if you hang on to your self-worth as a person: your value is yours. The industry will often reject you, and it is easy to take on their assessment of you as a person and as an actor, but hold on to your worth. It’s a fine line between having a tough skin in the profession, but being thin-skinned on stage, to be vulnerable.
What is an effective way of developing a character?
I used to do loads of research, so I would write down everything that was said about that character by other people. Then separately I’d write down whatever the character said about themselves – ‘Sorry I’m always late’ that sort of thing. There are so many clues, they are not absolute truths, one thing someone says about you isn’t how another friend might see you, but if you collect all of it together it’s like collecting different ingredients and then you cook it, and I would say that the flame is instinct. Always start with the text.
I love travelling on the tube or just walking down the street, looking for my character as I watch people, listen to them and even follow them, observing them. It has led to some embarrassing situations – odd looks for being a stalker!
Who have you admired and been inspired by on your journey to becoming an actor?
Oh loads. I probably became an actor because at 15 I was taken to see a Shakespeare play for the first time at the RSC in Stratford for a friend’s birthday. It was Richard II and it was performed by Ian Richardson. He was completely brilliant. I walked into the theatre one person, and walked out as someone else.
I went to see everything he was in from then – an embarrassing fan. That summer I hitched to Stratford and watched the play six times. I would wait for him outside the stage door and follow him home! Eventually I plucked up courage to write to him – even though I was a schoolgirl I pretended I was a drama student and asked him for advice.
When I joined the RSC David Suchet was always inspiring to watch, each night he gave it everything. There were so many brilliant actors in the company; that’s when I met Alan Rickman, Zoe Wanamaker, Jane Lapotaire and Glenda Jackson.
On film I really admire people that can transform, like Meryl Streep, who’s a great heroine of mine.
What has been your most challenging stage role?
Probably the Duchess of Malfi at the Greenwich Theatre and then the West End. It was quite grueling to do a Jacobean play eight times a week for three or four months; the horror goes on and on in the play, it was exhausting. I also had a six-month-old baby at the time – so tough.
What’s been your favourite role?
Oh no I can’t do that… I suppose I’d say Truly Madly Deeply because I was working with my beloved friend Alan Rickman who played my lover, and working with the director Anthony Minghella.
Do you have a preferred genre?
I love comedy, and haven’t been asked to do it as much as I would have liked, but every now and again something like Bend It Like Beckham comes along where I’ve thought ‘hurray now I’ve broken into comedy’, and then oddly no… except I was asked to do lots of weirdly obsessive mums after that, but then defaulted to being asked to do serious stuff.
The Chatterbox series continues reguarly via Playbox Theatre’s Facebook page.