Interview : Eileen Atkins

East End beginnings
I was born in the East End, in the Clapton Salvation Army Home. We then moved to
Tottenham, something called the White Hart Lane Estate, which is now one of the worst
estates going for crime. It’s pretty well the lowest form of living. Because I was the third child born in my family, we qualified for a council house. My father had been in service – hence, my writing Upstairs, Downstairs – and my mother didn’t like the idea of marrying someone who was in service, so he got a job as a gas meter reader.
I went through a period of saying that I was treated badly as a child. I think that was
because I got to know people from drama school later on, who had such different lives. But while it was happening – I have to say at this great age I am now – it probably wasn’t that bad. We didn’t have much money, and it did tend to run out towards the end of the week; there was endless worry about that. My mother was an extremely domineering woman and so am I, and I suppose that’s why we clashed tremendously. But she was also the person who pushed us through. My mother and father couldn’t have been more different. My father was Jack the Lad; he wanted a good time, he loved the old-time music hall, and he used to get up at parties, and sing funny songs. Until I was about 8, I thought he was the funniest man in the world, and I adored him.
My mother didn’t send me to school for ages; she wanted me around her. I was her
darling. She was 46 when she had me, and she was just so thrilled to have a girl, she
wouldn’t let me go. I learned, very early on, to cry every time anything went wrong. The
Blitz started and my mother thought it would do me good and take my mind off the bombs, to take dancing classes. So she sent me to a simply terrible dancing school. I kept crying every time I went, and finally she found another one where I used to lie about all the terrible things the girls did to me, because I didn’t want to dance. Then I became sort of the star of the dancing school; I was a very good tap dancer. The woman who ran the dancing school couldn’t have children, and tried to adopt me, my mother let her have me for a couple of weeks, I cried again, and was sent home. This woman did one wonderful thing for me, she said ‘Well, if I can’t have her, will you make sure that she’s decently educated?’ She found a little private school in Tottenham which was a simply divine place, with the most wonderful teachers; my life has been saved by school teachers. So my childhood was a very strange mixture. From the age of 7, I tap danced in working men’s clubs. Ordinary working men had clubs, where they’d drink and play cards, and have cabarets. People like Morecambe and Wise, a lot of our best comedians started out in those clubs. I find it slightly pornographic now, when
I think about it, because clearly what they liked was seeing a little girl show her bum, and I used to sing incredibly sexy songs. I didn’t know what they were about – I used to do the full thing (points and turns bum toward imaginary audience, points at face); I disliked doing it. And I used to fall asleep in school. I got fifteen shillings, which I was happy to see, and that was what Morecambe and Wise got, too. This was a huge help, of course, with family budgeting, and for my dancing classes – by then I was going to dance class four or five times a week. Everyone thought I would be a dancer; my father wanted me to be something called a ‘Tiller Girl’ which was a long chorus of girls who used to kick all the same. That’s what my family’s hope for me was.
This woman, who had taken an interest in me, paid two guineas a term for me to go to
Latymer’s in Edmonton, which was considered frightfully posh. It was one of the largest and most advanced ordinary schools in England. It was pretty frightening to go from a small school to such a big one – but again, wonderful teachers. By the time I got to 12, 13, I’d also been a professional in panto at Clapham and Kilburn, and I’d even spoken a few lines.My mother realised, when I got the lines in panto, that maybe I had a cockney accent. She would never have said that in so many words, but she did say, ‘It would be better if you spoke really nicely’. Because none of my family would have admitted that they had accents – and they all had broad cockney accents. She sent me to the speech-training mistress, asking for private lessons, but it was too expensive for my family, so the idea was dropped.
Then this very bizarre man who used to take us for religious instruction, stopped me one day in the corridor, and said I hear you want to learn to speak properly’, and I said ‘Yes, but my mother can’t afford it’. He said ‘You come to me whenever I say, and do everything I say. And I will teach you.’ I’d read the bible a couple of times in his class, and he’d got very interested in me. He taught me everything. Without him, I could never have moved out of what I came from. Slowly, I began to speak better. He introduced me to Shakespeare so painlessly that I’ve never had a worry about Shakespeare. He gave me a speech of Helena’s he’d typed out, and said ‘What do you think that’s about?’ And I said (cockney accent)’It’s about some girl who can’t get a boyfriend, in’ it? And she thinks she’s ugly, and things like that.’
He said Anything else about it?’, and I said, ‘Well, it’s funny, in’ it? It’s sort of poetry, but it isn’t really poetry’. He said ‘It’s Shakespeare’.
We used to do terribly advanced work; Lee Strasberg’s classes were nothing on this man’s classes at my grammar school; he was way out advanced. Rather than do a play, twice a year he used to do something called a ‘drama demonstration’, where we used to improvise. There were two of us who were very naughty, we used to improvise terrible things. But I heard this teacher at one of those demonstrations say, to Aubrey Woods, who came back to the school as a grand actor, I don’t know what to do about that kid; I think she’s really talented but I know how hard it is in the theatre. She’s not pretty, and I know that you need that if you’re going to go in the theatre. It’s terribly important’. And this actor said – I was about 14, 15 – ‘No, she’s not pretty, but she’s sexy. I’d take a chance’. I thought ‘Oh, I’m not pretty, but I’m sexy . . .’ I used to be down at the chip shop every night trying to get boys; I was obsessed by boys, so it was no surprise to me, that I was sexy. It was strange, because even though I wasn’t pretty, I never had a question about my looks, because I could get what I wanted most of the time. I had a lot of confidence like that. And then this teacher put me in for little competitions, and I started to win. My mother thought ‘Oh, that’s good,
she’s going to have a nice voice and be able to get parts in musicals.’ And then he said to my parents ‘She really should go to drama school’.
Now, they were pretty fed up that I was staying in school until I was 16, because my
sister had left at 14, my brother at 15, and they were just about biting the bullet about me staying to 16 before earning money. The thought of going on for any further education was appalling to them, because I wouldn’t be bringing any money in, and they certainly couldn’t pay any money out! So this teacher came to an agreement with them that he would put me in for scholarships for one drama school, and if I didn’t get the scholarship, he would arrange for me to do a teaching course at one of the other drama schools. I just missed the scholarship to RADA; the telegram to say I hadn’t got it came on my sister’s wedding day, and I ruined the wedding by sitting and howling throughout.

Drama School
He got me to Guildhall, on a teaching course. The minute I got there, I realised that nobody would question it if I went into the drama classes, so I enrolled for every drama class, and it wasn’t until my third year there, when I was teaching one day a week, that they realised I should not have been doing all these drama classes. I was in three plays that year, and the principal had me in, and said ‘Eileen, I’m terribly confused. You’re down on the teaching course, you’re gradually getting your teaching diploma, but you’re in the plays.’ And I said ‘Well, yes, I’ve been doing both courses’, and he said ‘Good luck to you’. It’s that kind of cheating you can’t do now, which is a shame.
I doubt whether I learned anything much there. We had two hours a week when we had private lessons, one-to-one, with what we called professors. That’s where I learnt anything.The last one I had was mad keen on T. S. Eliot, and I think I did practically the whole of T.S. Eliot with him. We learnt from just doing plays. It was so to do with opera; opera came top, music was next, and we were the poor end of it.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama
It’s much better now, especially since they’ve moved to the Barbican. I learnt a bit of confidence there, though I was very taken aback by the other pupils at first. There was one chap there who was from my area, but everybody else was so rich! I had some terribly embarrassing, awful, humiliating things happen. I only had one set of clothes, I hadn’t got the money to do things. All the same, I’m lucky to have the kind of personality that gets on, that isn’t crushed by things on the whole, and it lets a lot slide off my back. But it was hard.
Guildhall was down in the basement of John Carpenter Street. I’m one of those people who’s never looked very healthy, but I was grey by the time I left Guildhall, because I was doing two courses. I was utterly exhausted. The last year I had to teach one day a week, and I hated it. So I kept it quiet from my parents that there was no way I was going to be a teacher.I taught something called ‘Free Drama’, it was a nightmare. It was the days when everybody thought that everything had to be frightfully free. It was the early ’50s, and they were saying ‘No desks’, so you couldn’t get the children sitting at desks. I remember endlessly saying to the children ‘We’re playing going to sleep now; I want you all to imagine you’re asleep’. I don’t believe in all that unstructured teaching. I only ever learned anything by people being pretty strict with me.
In those days you had something called matriculation when you were sixteen, and I’d
come bottom in my form every year in the grammar school, because I was doing drama, and out with boys. It was only because this wonderful teacher said to me, I know you’re intelligent, and you keep coming bottom. What’s the matter with you?’ I said ‘Well, I find it so hard to concentrate. I look out the window, and my brain thinks of other things. I can’t be bothered.’ He said ‘You come with me, and I’ll show you what’ll happen if you go on not bothering.’ He took me to an absolutely huge typing pool, with all these girls, and he said ‘This is where you’ll be if you don’t concentrate’. That’s the only reason I did well, in the end. I shut up, and by the time I left, I was third or fourth in the class. But I would never have done it if people hadn’t been strict, and said, ‘Look, there are some things you just have to sit and learn! You can’t expect to get everything in a lovely way’. I loved acting, so I worked my socks off at drama school.
I remember thinking a few years after I left drama school ‘What did I learn there?’, because people would say, ‘Do you think it’s worth going?’ and I thought ‘Well, I learned how to make up . . .’ It was the private lessons that gave me a lot of confidence, and where you could express yourself. Whereas if you’re always in classes, some people get pushed down. In mixed classes, the males tend to dominate. I know in rehearsals, still, men dominate. Not with somebody like me, now, because I’m old and I’ve got a bit of clout, but I can see the younger girls being pushed down. The one-to-one business was good, but I didn’t learn anything about the theatre. I learned a lot about poetry, and I did a lot of plays, but I don’t remember anything in the class that really struck home, nothing. And I didn’t have any money to see things.
The only theatre I saw was when they put on the notice board ‘Drama students will be
welcome at a dress rehearsal’ or ‘This show is now coming off, you can have a seat’, so I
remember seeing Paul Scofield in Ring Round the Moon, and Waters of the Moon, with Edith Evans. I only went to Saturday afternoon pictures as a kid. My only interest in cinema, which I still love, were old American musicals.

Starting Out
I had a terrible time. Nobody got an agent. They used to say ‘If you’re a woman, give yourself eight years, and if after eight years you are not working steadily, give it up. Men, give yourself five years, and if you’re not working steadily, give it up.’ Well, I went nine years before I was working steadily. It took me so long to get going, hanging around for two seasons at Stratford. When I first went there, they wouldn’t even allow me to understudy, I just went as the wife of my then-husband, lulian Glover. I really started to learn about acting at Stratford. I’d done a few seasons of weekly rep in dreadful places, and then I married Julian.
We’d been in rep together in a holiday camp in Skegness, and we were both 21. Then he’d got a walk-on job at Stratford. I was always very sharp; I said to him ‘Michael Redgrave’s going to be the leading actor in Stratford this year. They’ll want tall people so that he doesn’t look too tall. You’re tall; make sure you get an audition.’ I think a lot of cockneys are canny, I just used to know where it was at. So he got into Stratford, and I’d given up by then; I’d had two terrible years, with only a few weeks of rep here and there, and I thought ‘Well, I’ll just go up and be a wife’. I gradually went up the scale at Stratford; I worked as an usherette, and then they asked me if I’d like to work on the postcard stand in the foyer, and I sold postcards of all the old actors, and answered questions about the theatre. I was so miserable, I so wanted to be backstage with the actors.
That season, suddenly, they’d lost about five people, and they were thinning in the ranks of the walk-ons because everybody had moved up. My husband heard they were going to take on some more extras for a crowd scene, and he went to Glenn Byam Shaw and said ‘Look, my wife’s here with me, and she’s dying to be in it’, and he said ‘Listen old chap, we just don’t take people’s wives, because you want’, and my husband said I think she did an audition for you once’. He looked up my audition, and he said, ‘ All right, she can come into the company, but she will not even be allowed to understudy. Okay?’ I was allowed in the company. The thrill! I went in halfway through the season. And I’d only been there six weeks, and the girl who was playing Audrey in As You Like It – Dame Peggy Ashcroft was playing Rosalind – was taken to hospital for six weeks. Then her understudy was taken to hospital in the night with some kind of chest thing, she couldn’t breathe. And I thought ‘She’s the understudy, who is going to play Audrey tomorrow night? What if she’s not better?’ So I stayed up all
night and learned Audrey, and made sure I was in the theatre the next day, and they were all saying ‘Oh my God, is there anyone who knows Audrey?’ and I said ‘Yes, I know it, I’ve played it’. I lied, and I went on as Audrey, and from then on they accepted me at Stratford. But you see, I was cunning.

The ‘Kitchen Sink’ Period
We were going to sweep away the old thinking, the Binkie Beaumont, the tea-party, nicely dressed theatre; it was the beginning of ‘kitchen sink drama’. The people who started to be famous when I left drama school were Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, that was the group. It was very much the first of the new wave of real. I did a play at the time with Larry Olivier called Semi-Detached. Oddly enough, it was one of his few failures, and I had a big success in it. He was just so generous to me. I know people say awful things about Larry, but I adored him. To me, he was the absolutely typical actor: wicked, two-faced, and a lot of other things, but he’d always give you a show. The first time I worked with him, I nearly fainted, I could hardly get through the morning’s rehearsal. There was one point in that play with Larry where I had to go off-stage, run upstairs and come down, and make an entrance again. There were actual stairs, so that people could hear me running up the stairs and back. I had this moment, and I was always a tiny fraction of a second late on my entrance, and he said to me, ‘Darling, why are you always late on that thing?’ and I said ‘Well, I’m running like mad, to get to the top and down’. He said ‘Why are you going to the top of the stairs?’ and I said
‘Because that’s what supposed to do, go to the top of the stairs.’ He said ‘Darling, you’re offstage. It’s magic on stage, not reality, magic’. He said ‘You just go halfway up the stairs.’ That sounds a silly lesson, but I learned that total reality isn’t necessarily what’s total reality on stage. That’s the art of acting half the time, making people think it’s reality.
But if you do total reality on stage, mostly it doesn’t work. A perfect example of that:
when we were at Stratford, Albert Finney was in Lear. Everybody else – because they couldn’t afford it – were in felt costumes. But because Albert Finney was Albert Finney, they gave him real leather. When I sat in the audience, his costume looked lousy and all the felt ones looked great. The felt ones looked like leather, and his looked like plastic. I get awfully bored, if someone says ‘We’re going to cook real sausages on stage’. That was very much my early plays; very much what I started to make a name doing, was in utterly realistic stuff. I pretended to be from the Midlands for years, because that was the vogue, but again, that was just cunning of me. All the plays were coming from Midland and Northern writers.
My husband was watching me in The Duchess of Malfi (for the BBC), because someone wanted to make a movie of it. I wandered in, looked at it, and said ‘My God, I was gorgeous, why wasn’t I a film star?’ and left the room. I happened to say this to a friend, and she said ‘Well, you know why you didn’t get to be a film star, Eileen, it’s because you played those endless washed-out Midlands and Northern women. That was your main diet when you were in your late 20s and early 30s, and that stopped you from being accepted. You didn’t do the looks thing.’ Anyway, I think I’ve had a far more interesting life than if I’d done movies. I mean, I’ve had a charmed life, so what the hell. I still don’t understand actors who want to be famous or make a lot of money. To me, the whole joy and pleasure of acting – and it is a great joy and pleasure, with all its hard work – is to become, or to persuade people, that you are someone else. That is the pleasure, to enter someone else’s persona, someone else’s whole being, and persuade a lot of people that you are not who you are, you are someone else! That process is wildly exciting. Last night, I had the thrill of my life; Alec Guinness, who is an old friend, and who has been very good to me in my career indeed, came to see the play (A Delicate Balance) and he said ‘Eileen, you were marvellous. I could not see you at all’. That, to me, is it. I know that’s not stardom, because stardom is people wanting to go and see what they expect, and getting it. That’s a different thing; and some stars manage to be stars and still sink into their roles. There will always be wonderful actors . . .When I was very young – I never know whether it’s envy or jealousy – but I immediately could scout out who was going to be the opposition. Maggie Smith and I were both sacked when we were 20, from Assistant Stage Managing at Oxford rep. But I was aware, even then,from the tiny bits that I saw her do in university shows, that she was terribly talented, we were the same age, we looked rather alike, and I thought ‘If ever you get going, that’s going  to be someone who’s going to be very, very strong competition’. And let’s face it, she’s beaten me! Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith and I were all after the same parts. Luckily, I thought that they were all wonderful, and I never minded giving in to someone I thought was terrific. I used to get very angry if I thought someone wasn’t talented, and I didn’t get the part. I used to say so, which wasn’t very good. I was not very nice about some of the older ones. It took me ages to appreciate Peggy Ashcroft.

Acting Lessons
The biggest things I’ve learned have always been from other actors. Not directors, but other actors. Peter O’Toole said to me very early on – I don’t think it’s quite true, but it had a big effect on me: ‘You’re either an actor who goes on the stage and says ‘Love me’, or you go on the stage and say ‘Fuck you, this is what I’m playing, like it or not!’ And I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s me. Fuck you. This is what I’m playing.’
The nearest I came to not doing a part – it was Ian McKellen who told me off about it –
was when I was asked to do Sons and Lovers on the television, playing the mother. Now, that mother was so like my own mother, and I know that I’m so like my own mother – and there was a huge percentage of me that didn’t like my mother. A huge percentage of me hates what’s in me that is like my mother, and I knew I was going to have to pull out everything I knew about my mother and me. And I said no to it three times. Finally, Stuart Burge, the director, said, I just don’t know why you keep saying no to this, Eileen. They all want you to do it.’ And Ian McKellen said to me ‘You’re not doing it because you don’t want to be your mother,’ and I thought ‘He’s right. I’ll do it.’ But then I never wanted to play Saint Joan, because I thought ‘Oh, God, I’m not even religious, I don’t want to play her’. I’d seen it and always thought all that sickly praying and going on’, but I was forced into that accidentally to help a dear friend who was opening a theatre. And that made me very religious for a while! It was weird, but I got in touch with something in me. By then I’d played Celia Copplestone in The Cocktail Party, and that had a terrific effect on me. I very nearly became a Catholic while that was going on, because I was working with Alec Guinness, who is a Catholic. He wasn’t pushing me in any way, but he would lead me through, and he’d give me stuff to read while I was playing it that helped towards those feelings.
My now-husband – who’s been married to me twenty years, and who’s not an actor –
says to me very early on when I do a play, ‘I’d like to read the part so I can know who I’m going to be living with for a few months’. I find it irritating when people say ‘Oh, you live the part’. You don’t, it’s not that you live the part, but certainly in rehearsals, you’re having to endlessly go back inside: ‘If I use that bit of me, I’m thinking like that, therefore, how will I react, or say that line?’ I do one of the few exercises that people told me they learned in another drama school, which was to do your lines while doing very menial tasks, like cooking. It’s a very useful thing to do, and so often when I’m cooking I go through lines. Then my husband will say something to me, and I’ll answer him as the character, because that’s what I’m fishing up at that moment. Once you’re playing, the pressure isn’t on quite so much; you probably aren’t still thinking all day. By the time you’ve opened you’ve got your performance in some way, so you’re not as bugged by it. But certainly, while I’m doing rehearsals, I am very effected. All parts have some effect on me, all of them. Because of course – every actor will say
this – you have everything in you. Each human being has every possibility in them, I would hope. And you mustn’t accept a part if you really don’t think you’ve got that in you. Any part you go into, you’re going to fiddle about and pull out things that may be things you don’t like very much. You’ve got a killer in you – everyone has somewhere; you’ve got a sexual being somewhere in you, and it depends, as an actor, on what you are willing to show. I think you’ve got to be willing to show everything, and that to me is what makes one actor better than the other. I’ve seen good actors actually stop themselves by not being willing to be ugly, or plain, or vicious. I’ve seen actors want to be nice. It’s the worst thing about America. It’s not an accident that for the nasty parts, on the whole, they use British actors! I don’t know what that is; I suppose American actors want people to love them.I often think that actors really shouldn’t need psychoanalysts, or any kind of analysts; I think we’re terribly lucky because we get to go through things legitimately, and get paid for it! We get to release things. Oddly enough, I think the most difficult thing to play, and I hardly ever attempt it, is farce, because you’re not going through anything. It’s technical. And if the other actors aren’t all giving you what you want, it’s the most miserable thing to play in the world. You’re often happier playing something quite miserable, because it’s cathartic. You feel great at the end of the evening, and people come round backstage and say ‘Oh, God,
what a terrible thing, what you’ve been through’. But you’re released by having let something out.
But, strangely, I’ve never made a deliberate decision, I’ve always done the work, and the plays I like. It’s very bizarre, because I’m not an intellectual in any way, shape, or form, and it took me a long time – because I always felt lacking in brain – to know that I was even intelligent. But I have always had a very good nose for what is a good play. The only bad play that I’ve been in – which was a Jeffrey Archer – was the only deliberate choice I’ve made, and that was so I could work with Paul Scofield. We thought we’d all do it for a bit of fun.

I will do almost anything if someone thinks that’s the way to get the part. As you get older, it does get a little more difficult with directors. I had a lot of difficulty with the director for Indiscretions, in New York, Sean Matthias. I’ve known him a long time, really charming man. I talked to him before we started, and he said ‘Look, Eileen, everyone wants you for this part, and I think you’d be terrific, but I have a method of working that I think you’ll buck against’. I said ‘Oh, God, are we going to play games?’ He calls them exercises, I call them games. And I said ‘Look, all right. If that’s the way you work, that’s the way you work. I think they’re absolute rubbish, and do no good whatsoever, but if that’s the way you work, and we’ve got six weeks, I will do it so that no other member of that cast will know that I think they’re rubbish. I will do them full tilt, because you’ve been honest, and that’s what we’re going to do.’ And I did! Those games do one thing, they make sure that everyone talks to everybody, that everybody knows each other’s name, and that you all know that you’re a group, and you should be pretty relaxed with each other by the time you act. But for my money, that
should be a given before you start, that you always talk to everybody! The same thing would have been done getting there a quarter of an hour before rehearsal, and all having coffee together. To me, it was a thorough waste of time. It meant that I learned my part before I went into rehearsal, because I thought ‘I’m not going to get enough rehearsal to learn it in rehearsal’. I think it’s rubbish.
I watched Tony Sher on Omnibus with a highly regarded voice teacher, Cis Berry. But he
did a speech where she made him keep changing chairs. It would be like ‘To be (moves) or not to be (moves); that is the question’. I thought ‘You’re an intelligent man, Tony Sher. Why can’t you look at the speech, know you need variation, work out where it is, and just think it through?’ I don’t understand why they need some of these exercises. Sometimes in Shakespeare, if it’s all got bogged down and everybody’s getting a bit speechy-speechy, and you don’t quite know what they’re saying, okay then, let’s stop and say ‘What’s this scene really about?’ Often, by the side of the classics, I write little modern things like ‘Well, fuck you’, as if that’s what that means, really. But to me, that’s homework! Or that’s just a chat in rehearsal, like ‘Here, though we’ve got all these words, I’m saying da-da-da-dum, and you’re saying to me da-da-da-dum. Isn’t that so? Or do you think something else?’, and then you discuss it with the director.
Edward Albee said at one point, ‘Oh, English actors can’t feel any emotion until they’ve
moved, and American actors can’t move until they’ve felt an emotion.’ It isn’t true. There are many ways to skin a cat, and everybody has their own method of getting somewhere. There is no absolute, fail-safe method. I’ve seen people use all kinds of things and end up good or bad. The best actors for my money have been the ones that are pretty straightforward.
Give me the blocking, work it out. You don’t throw beanbags; you discuss a scene, but
not endlessly go on and on. Some discussion, but every part and every play is different, and almost any method will work if you’ve got good actors. You will not get a good performance from bad actors. You can take them all through different methods, but finally, were the actors any good or not? That’s what it’s about. It won’t make any difference to an actor who is really good what method you use to get him there. It just means that sometimes you do more work at home.

On the Method
Acting is about you being real to that character, in that situation, in that play. This is where Method acting goes wrong. The weird thing is, I’ve never come across it in America. The difference between American and British, is a barrier often put up that is not actually there. It’s played up by both lots, but having done a lot of work in both countries, I find very little difference. I’ve done so many plays there, but I’ve only found extreme professionalism. And text acting. The reason I wanted to work in America was that I did feel that English actors were too head-based, and not gut-based, and they worked everything out; everything was beautifully done in the head. I often thought they didn’t have the rest of the body, and I thought ‘I’d like to learn to feel more of the whole’. We had a spill of some coffee on the stage the other night, and in character, I hope, I immediately said ‘Claire, that was your fault, you made me do that’, and Maggie (Smith) said ‘Oh yeah, I would be blamed, wouldn’t I?’ And it was off and over, and we went back to the text, because we were being extremely professional. We knew we couldn’t lean on the coffee, we wanted to make it look as if nobody knew it was out of text. It was an accident that we used and got rid of, because there’s a brain telling you that you’ve got to get on with the play. Anthony Page kept on saying that lanet McTeer did different moves every night, and I said ‘That was fine, she was the lead, everybody had to work around her. If you’re going to have six of us doing what moves we
want every night, you’re going to have traffic jams, and the audience won’t hear half the play’. There is a technique to acting as well. The best actors have the technique, and have massive feeling, which they are able to show, and the emotion is bound within that evening’s play, and not about their own wanking! And it is wanking, a lot of the time: ‘Oh, how do I feel, this will be terribly interesting’. It’s nonsense. People who are real Method actors don’t do theatre much. You can do that in film. Wonderful on films, it gives some marvellous, offbeat things.
Vanessa Redgrave does things off the top of her head, and I’ve worked for six months with her. Oddly enough, it’s very easy to act with her, because she doesn’t indulge. She doesn’t affect you by what she does.If she’s going to mess herself up – and I’ve seen her mess herself up on-stage – that’s her own problem. What I can’t forgive, is when they mess you, and the story, and the author up, because you should be serving the author, that’s your first priority, to do what the author wrote. Not what you want to do. That’s the interest: what did he mean, how did he want it?
Most of them – Edward Albee’s still alive – can’t tell you half the time. They’ve written it
down, but they can’t tell you, so you’ve got to find it. I would be hard pressed to give you sensational stage actors that are totally bound up with what I call absolute Method acting. I loved it when somebody told me a story about Helen Mirren, and I believe I’ve heard the same story told about Marlon Brando – somebody said to them ‘The understudy’s on tonight’, and they both said ‘Oh, good, that’ll be interesting’. That is different; I’m with that: ‘Oh, I’m going to get something different thrown at me tonight, that I’ll react to.’
One of the worst things I find about the few so-called Method actors – and I think l most
people get the Method wrong; I know there’s Stanislavsky’s Method, and there’s Lee Strasberg’s Method, and it’s all very different – is that one of the things they do is hesitate a lot: ‘Well,um, I think . . . uh . . . it would be a good idea, uh, if . . . we went out’. Certainly no British person would ever speak like that, and I don’t know any Americans who speak like that. It’s not real. You think, just occasionally, maybe some Mafia boss might speak like that, but my American friends speak, sometimes stop, sometimes hesitate because they don’t know what they’re going to say next, but they don’t have all these grunts, and oohs and aahs. I think being real is much harder work than that, much deeper work, much less easy than ‘Mmmaahh mmm rrrr’.
But to make out that there are two forms, and that some people go on and their priority is reacting, and somebody else’s is text, I don’t see that. They’re both the same thing. You’ve got to react, whoever you are. Reacting is why one only wants to work with good actors; it’s tennis, and you have to react to that ball coming back! And your eye’s always got to be on what’s coming back to you, and you have to react to that. It’s unfortunate to do too much work at home, because the wardrobe doesn’t react the same way as your fellow actor. That’s the only reason for not learning too much at home. But all the same, a lot of time is wasted in rehearsal. The ideas of the Method, should be used by every actor. But it’s natural, I don’t see why you have to do all these exercises to get there. I can do improvisation – the ‘airy fairy nonsense’ of imagined situations – I’m not very good at it, but I’ll do it. But I don’t see the use of it at all.
Whether it’s classical or the latest, wildly modern, it all needs the same kind of acting.
What I get very depressed about is all the kids coming out who can do one or the other – classical or modern. All it needs is that you can act. It connects with something else I get very upset about, which is, that they don’t get rid of the accent now. It’s considered not PC to get rid of your accent. If somebody had done that to me, all I would ever have played would be scrubbers. It seems to me utterly sensible, if you’re going to act, to learn received pronunciation first, and make that your basic voice, because that’s the one you’re most likely to be asked to use. Now, if you go in only with a cockney accent, only with a northern accent, you might say to whoever is casting you (cockney accent): ‘Oh, yer, I can do posh, yer, I do upper class . . .’ It won’t work! In their heads, you are as you present yourself. So what’s happening is there are class distinctions again, and they’ve done it to themselves by being PC! It seems to me absolutely stupid. And you are getting two sets of actors now. There are some actors who are turns, they’re not actors, they’re revue artists, and that is a different kind of acting. You should be able to do anything! I played the most way-out stuff at the Royal Court when I was young, but swapped over to the classics as well.

On the Necessity For Imagination
You shouldn’t be an actor unless you have a huge imagination; you shouldn’t be an actor unless you’re willing to show everything that’s in you – everything. I’ve been on stage stark naked covered with shit, (in Mary Barnes) so I’m not somebody who’s holding back, here. Much more important, I never understood why people get into such a state about nudity. For God’s sake, it’s much, much more difficult and revealing, and incredible, to show your soul, and that’s what you’ve got to be willing to do. Why anyone should want to be an actor, without being prepared to do that, I have no idea. I don’t understand the necessity to do exercises to stir the imagination. My imagination is so big I can’t sleep at night anyway, I have to take a sleeping pill every night, and I have done for thirty-five years. When I was a child, my mother took me to a doctor and said ‘This child doesn’t sleep, she’s driving us crazy’. He said ‘She has too big an imagination’. Nowadays, I would be sent to a psychiatrist,I suppose.
People can never understand why I wouldn’t be in Upstairs, Downstairs. They think it’s
snobbish of me. It’s quite simple: it would have meant I was one character for four or five years. And once you get the character, the interest, as far as I’m concerned, starts to wane. I’d like to only ever do anything for three months, and then the interest is in trying someone else again. To play one character, not even to be famous, but a household name, seems to me utterly depressing. I can see when you’re very young, if you get a series, then yes, take it, if that’s going to pay the rent, and it makes everybody look at you and start casting you. But then the minute they start casting you, for goodness sake, try and get away from that, and say ‘No! That isn’t me, let me do something very different’.
I get bored quickly, although I have various outlets to stop me being bored. When I was
very sick two years ago, I wouldn’t let myself be bored. I immediately rang up the BBC and said ‘Can I do Virginia Woolf’s diaries on radio? I think I can manage that’, and I had huge fun trawling through them. It’s only through boredom that you’re forced to use your imagination. I think we’re killing off kids’ imaginations, because they sit there pressing buttons, lohn Standing, who comes from a very posh family, was talking to me last night, ‘Oh yes, I used to go down in the kitchen to practise circuses with the cook. We used to spin plates on things’. I said ‘Oh, did you? I had circuses in my bedroom; I used to put poles between the beds, and of course I was the tightrope walker.’ He said ‘My kids would think I was mad if I said to them to play games like that.’ The minute boredom comes to me – and it does come – I fish around in the mind for something to do. I’m making myself sound rather goody-goody, but I suppose I find it boring if things are too easy. They sure haven’t been easy the last few years! (laughs) It’s not too bad to have a stick at your back, too, for work.

The Lost Language of Cranes
I was very intrigued by The Lost Language of Cranes. Sean Matthias had done the adaptation; he rang me up and asked if I would do it. And he said ‘Eileen, I don’t think you’re going to want to play the woman,’ and I said ‘It’s a wonderful part, I’d love to play it.’ He said ‘But Eileen, everybody’s going to hate you,’ and I said ‘No they’re not, Sean,’ and then I got onto the set, and I think everyone who worked on it was gay, except me and Brian Cox, and the boy who played my son, and of course in the film, both of them were gay too. Every gay man there said ‘You’re going to be so disliked,’ and I thought I simply don’t understand what they’re thinking. This woman is a rather marvellous woman; I don’t often get to play someone as nice as this.’ But it was because she had the scene with the boy when she got angry. That seemed to me the most natural and ordinary thing. It wasn’t a very hard part to play, because I just
thought of most women I knew, and what their first reaction would be. It might not be PC, but I know that any woman will have a shock when she first realises that her son is gay. She will. That might change, it’ll be different in 15 or 20 years, because what people think changes all the time, and that’ll be great, but you can’t dislike the woman for living in her time. That was such a genuine and real script. The most difficult thing is to do something you feel is not real. So it came naturally to me. And then to find out your husband is gay as well, I think that’s a natural feeling of terrible betrayal. Indeed, she accepts her son at the end, and her love for him comes through, which is also very real and natural. The reason you choose things is because they seem incredibly real to you, your mind immediately says ‘This is real. This is how they would speak, this is how they would react, this isn’t being done for any other reason’. I look as much as possible, in every single script for humour, and I’m happy to say I pulled it off even in John Gabriel Borkman. I only accepted that play to work with Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield and Richard Eyre; all of whom I like very much. I hated the part when I first read it; I thought ‘Oh, God, this is a nightmare of a bore of a woman, she’s monstrous’. I said to Richard Eyre’Can’t I find any laughs?’ and he said ‘If you can find them . . .’, and one did. But there is humour, even of a black kind, in nearly everything. I’m told Lost Language of Cranes – I only saw it at a private showing – collects laughs at some points. And that’s fine too, because in the most terrible situations, things are funny. If you don’t see the humour in human beings, then you’re lost, you’re going to have a very hard life.

Agnes in A Delicate Balance
A quick rundown of how I work on a part – I read it, decide whether I’ve got in me what
I think that part has, and if I can pull it out. I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and don’t look at it again
until the first rehearsal, because I don’t like doing a lot of work by myself. I want to hear
what the director has to say, what the other actors are going to be doing, and I don’t want to have too many set ideas, because I want to be able to move. I memorised Agnes, because I was so frightened of letting Maggie Smith down. It was so
difficult to learn, that I’m glad I did. But if you do learn before – Peter O’Toole learns everything before, and tried to persuade me to do that years ago – you are a bit more set in railway lines. You have come to some conclusions, because you’ve had to learn it. I’m glad I did it for Agnes, otherwise I honestly don’t think I could have played the part. As it was, I dried in Edinburgh on the first night. It was much harder to learn than my one-woman show, A Room of One’s Own. It’s a little more difficult to undo when it’s fixed in your head; you might have some rivetted, wrong ideas from learning it first. But even when you start learning in rehearsal, with others, you still, in the process of learning, rivet yourself into ideas you’re going to have to undo anyway. That’s Peter O’Toole’s argument; he says you have to undo it anyway; you endlessly do something and undo it, do something and undo it. The thing that always annoys me most in a rehearsal is when an actor says to a director ‘But, I’m doing what you told me to do yesterday and you’ve changed your mind’. Well, of course you change your mind; it’s an endless form of change; it always becomes something else. You think ‘Oh, I’ve got that, I see, now. I know I said that yesterday, but today it’s changed.’ So what you’re
doing has to be extremely malleable, and it becomes a little harder to undo, if you go in the first day with everything learned. Especially as we get older.
Albee is a nightmare to learn, I mean, just a nightmare! He doesn’t speak in the way I’m
sure most Americans speak! It is totally convoluted, and every word he uses is exactly the word you wouldn’t normally use. One has to talk about the cat who’s been killed. I have to say ‘Well, what else could you have done, there was no meeting between you’. Now, that’s a very bizarre word to choose. There was no ‘meeting’ between you? Albee’s rhythm is very strange. You must pick up the author’s rhythm, and any playwright who’s any good has a very strong rhythm. So you have to work on text. I don’t only work in rehearsals during the day. I get what’s come up from the day, I go home at night, I do nothing else when I’m rehearsing. I don’t go out, all I do is cook for myself or the two of us if my husband’s in, and go over what I’ve done in a day. Have a break and do something silly, just to release the mind. Then I go over the text, what’s happened in the day, and look back at the text. You endlessly go back to the text, because, in the end, that is what you’re doing. You’re doing the text, and you’ve got to make it live. It’s a sort of tortuous but interesting process. Then you go back the next day, and try and do it, and by then the other actors have changed too, and
you see what happens again. It’s such a weird process. I personally think it’s unteachable, I really do. I always think you can act or you can’t act, and you will only learn from doing it, and you will only learn from doing it with the best.
You shouldn’t have trouble with modern stuff, it should be natural to you. You should
be taught to observe people. Most drama students are so in their own little world; I think it makes them more ‘me-me-me’ than they should be. You should be out with your eye on people: ‘Ohh . . . an old woman in a bus by herself, upstairs smoking a fag. Oh, how interesting she did that.’
I always remember going to see Robert Stephens when he was married to Maggie Smith,and this is the kind of mind that an actor has. I’d gone to see Robert about something; Maggie said ‘I’ll go and make us some coffee’. She pulled the door, and she caught all four fingers in it, it was very bad. And she stood at the door (mimes action of excruciating pain with no sounds coming out of her mouth). And Robert and I both sat and looked at her, and then we both got up and said ‘My God’, and rushed into the kitchen and put her hand under the tap. She had very swollen fingers, but she hadn’t broken anything. Afterwards, Robert and I went back to talk, and we had both immediately thought ‘How interesting. When you really hurt yourself like that, you’re not screaming, you just open your mouth without making any sound. I must remember that.’ That is the first thought of an actor; you should be observing all the time.
Agnes is very difficult because she’s not a totally real character. How many women do you know who can start off with that long monologue? It’s silly to call it anything else but a monologue, because Tobias, her husband, has hardly any lines at all. Normally, I would break down what he said. I didn’t even do that  this time. Most of my scripts are marked with things, I’m always putting it into my own language, which is appalling, a lot of swear words. A lot of my script is marked: ‘Come on, let’s talk about Claire!’ ‘So what?’ Things like that. So the thought is there, but then you have to make your voice
say that language. I just find it interesting to try and make it work. What drove me potty was that the director and everybody kept saying when we were on tour, that the play was failing, because I started it off so badly, and that was very hard for me. They would all come in to my dressing room, very pleased with themselves – I had four or five of them in there; two producers, a director, writer – and they’d all say ‘Everything’s fine, except it’s on the ground when you start, Eileen, at the beginning’. In the end I was crying and saying ‘Will you please stop telling me that I’m the one letting everybody down. I can’t bear it any more’. I said to Albee one night ‘You’ve written a boring opening. You tell me how to do it’. ‘But it’s just light’, that’s all Anthony (Page) would keep saying. I kept thinking, ‘How can I be light with this dialogue?’ It was very sweet, the other night, I had two drama students who had seen it on the second night, and they’d come back again to see it again the night before last. They didn’t want autographs or anything, they said ‘We’ve just come round to say it’s been absolutely fascinating to see how your performance has already changed in two and a half weeks.’ And of course the more I do it, the more I see, yes, you can be light. Anthony would say to me ‘It should be like Noel Coward’. Well, of course it’s not like Noel
Coward, because Noel Coward has got very little underneath it, whereas this has got all this going on underneath it. It’s just difficult to do, but I can’t describe how one does it, except keep trying. On the whole you learn from repetition more than anything. When you know something inside, backside, outside, every which way, you can let your mind loose, and then you can fly on it, and you can just feel. Then you just speak. You don’t get much help from directors on the whole. I mean, one or two have been wonderful. Richard Eyre was wonderful with me in Night of the Iguana, just wonderful.
The most difficult thing in the world is to speak as if you’re doing it for the first time, as
if you don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s only possible if you know the text. One actor said they were doing their lines while swinging round a gym. Well, very few of us have got a gym, but I do things so that I can say the lines whatever’s happening. But text first! Once you’ve got the text so that you’re never worrying ‘Oh, what do I say next?’, you can begin to be real. Then, you can just say to yourself, and indeed the director, on the first night said, ‘Right now, we all know it, we all know what we’re doing. Now just listen to each other’.
But you can’t listen until you know it so well that whatever happens – coffee spilling – won’t matter. Because I don’t care what anybody says, if people are thinking ‘Oh, what do I say next?’, it comes out wrong because they’re not feeling properly. You can’t feel until you know.So the text has to come first; the text has to be a priority.
Somebody said the other day ‘Oh, the play is dated, because it was written when people were frightened of the Bomb. Is that what he means?’ Certainly at my age, and at the age all these people are, death is a pretty big terror. I doubt whether there’s more than two days go by that I don’t think about it. That is quite a big terror, but even for young people, there is ‘the terror’. If you really think about it, what is this where we are? What the hell is this existence that we’re in? I can terrorise myself; I can look up at night sometimes, at the stars, and look at infinity, and be terrorised. I can see that someone like Agnes knows that if you think like that every day, madness is upon you. So you’ve got to drive away madness. And to have her best friend come in the house – and say they’ve come to stay because they’ve suddenly become frightened – she starts to know that there is a terror, it exists. Of course, we’re in Virginia Woolf-land now. So Agnes, quite rightly, is trying to keep the equilibrium. Even Virginia Woolf, who did go mad, said ‘The doctor told me to have a mutton chop, and my goodness, it worked. I felt better after I’d eaten a mutton chop’. Now Agnes knows that you must eat the mutton chop, and then maybe you won’t think about the terror, and the terror’s not going to do you any good anyway, so she is trying to keep everybody calm. That’s
because I’m playing her at the moment. If I was playing one of the other cast, I’d be feeling differently. I think Agnes is rather sensible, and doing the right thing. When people say ‘I don’t understand what the terror and plague are that make her want to get everybody out of the house.’ Well, I think, to have two people in the house who are looking into the abyss every day, would affect anybody, and I think she’s quite right to get them out. But that’s me.
I know when I first saw it, I thought it was pretentious. But it’s always the same, when you’re in it, and you think about it, it’s a very brilliant play. It’s like T.S. Eliot and Beckett. It doesn’t only speak to the ’60s and to Americans. It’s universal, and that’s why it’s a classic, and why it’s so brilliant.

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