In a bitterly cold late afternoon in what’s meant to be spring, Zoë Wanamaker is to be found in Hampstead Town Hall rehearsing her starring role in a new production of Peter Nichols’ Passion Play.
Insulated against the elements, she cuts a tiny, almost cartoonish figure, in striped woolly hat, red top, black fleece, tartan trousers, non-matching socks and sneakers. The familiar face has an impish quality with its tip-tilted nose, slash of a mouth and those small, blue, searchlight eyes that can glitter with mischief or (as we shall see) blaze with anger.
Rehearsal over, she’s all ready smiles and warm greetings. ‘But do you mind if I pop out for a fag first?’ she asks, the smoky voice evidence of a lifelong habit. Settled back in the comparative warmth of the Town Hall, she’s ready to talk about this latest challenge, something she does haltingly, not because she has any reservations but because she’s at pains at all times to choose the apposite word, to say precisely what she feels.
Nichols is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg having enjoyed a substantial run for its relatively recent revival while Privates on Parade with Simon Russell Beale’s gloriously over-the-top central performance was a big hit earlier this year. This will be the first time Passion Play has been revived since a 2000 production at the Donmar with Cherie Lunghi, Martin Jarvis and Cheryl Campbell.
Affairs of the heart
After 25 years of marriage, goes the storyline, Eleanor (Zoë) discovers that her husband, James (Owen Teale), is having an affair with her friend, Kate (Annabel Scholey). Zoë describes it as a glorious mix of humour, eroticism and duplicity.
‘We’ve all either been there or known somebody who has. It’s human, timeless, painful. It’s about waking up and realising you have one life and that passion is not the exclusive preserve of the young. The loss of it is nothing to do with age but everything to do with a lapse of imagination.’
Those mischievous eyes sparkle: clearly she has no such problem.
Director David Leveaux, with whom she’d worked in 1997 on a production of Electra (for which she won an Olivier Award) asked Zoë if she’d consider the role. ‘I was thrilled. It’s lovely to be working in the theatre again after a couple of years of film and television.’
Film, theatre and sitcom
From Sophocles to the TV sitcom My Family, 63-year-old Zoë has had an enviable career, marked as much by its variety as by her versatility. ‘I do enjoy going from one project to another – from serious theatre to sitcom,’ she says. ‘It’s just a question of pulling out another organ stop.’
My Family was unlike anything she’d done before – and she’s not apologetic about it. ‘It was an old-fashioned English situation comedy done with four cameras in a studio in front of a live audience. I had to learn a new script each week and then perform it. Playing Susan Harper was a new challenge, I can tell you.’ In the end, she and Robert Lindsay did 120 or so episodes over 11 years. To this day, if she ever gets stopped in Sainsbury’s – and she does – it’s because of Susan or Madam Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
During her West End run, some of Zoë’s daytime hours will be spent filming a new TV episode of Poirot, in which she plays the crime writer Ariadne Oliver. ‘She’s a marvellous character, the polar opposite of the anal Poirot. He’s strangely fond of her – and the only person he ever calls by her first name.’
Zoë is the middle of three daughters of the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker and his actress wife Charlotte Holland. In 1952, when Zoë was three, the whole family moved to London; it was the McCarthy era and Sam had found out that he was about to be blacklisted. He was unable to return for some years, Zoë says, as they had taken his passport.
Neither of her sisters followed their parents into show business. ‘I was the difficult middle child. Apparently.’ She attended the liberal King Alfred’s School near the family home in Hampstead, but was removed at 15 by her parents when they found she had a boyfriend. ‘They thought I was more interested in him than in my schoolwork. And I think they might have been right.
‘I was sent to a Quaker boarding school – Sidcot, in Somerset – but it didn’t work. I’d never acquired the habit of doing homework and I wouldn’t concentrate.’ In her (partial) defence, she was to discover that she’s dyslexic. ‘It’s always made learning my lines tricky. And the older I get, the harder I find it. In the end, it’s down to repetition.’
Expelled from school
Zoë didn’t knuckle down at Sidcot. ‘It was too late. The die was cast. I got expelled on my last day, when I was leaving anyway!’ She wanted to be an actress but her parents tried to put off the evil hour by enrolling her at Hornsey College of Art. ‘It didn’t last. It was too solitary an occupation and anyway I wasn’t good enough.’
She was accepted at the Central School of Speech and Drama – alongside director Jonathan Kent, Sue Holderness and Lynda Bellingham – and now she was doing what she’d always wanted to do. She got work as soon as she graduated. ‘For the first six years, I went from one repertory theatre to another. And what a wonderful grounding. I feel sorry for young actors today. How are they to learn their craft?’
She met her husband, actor and writer Gawn Grainger, when both appeared in a 1988 film, The Raggedy Rawney; Bob Hoskins was also in the cast and it was his directorial debut. ‘Gawn made me laugh a lot,’ Zoë says. She became friends with both him and his wife Janet Key, an actress who died of cancer in 1992.
Marriage in her 40s
In time, Zoë and Gawn’s friendship blossomed into love and they married in 1994, when she was 45. Someone said recently that a woman over 40 is about as likely to get married as to be struck by lightning. She roars with laughter.
‘That’s it exactly. I got struck by lightning! Marriage had never been high on my agenda. It had occurred to me that maybe I should have a baby. There had been boyfriends down the years but never anyone with whom I wanted to commit, let alone start a family.’
By the time she married Gawn, it was too late. ‘But I inherited two children, a boy and a girl. I call myself their Wicked Stepmother, but the truth is that I got lucky again because these stepchildren were very generous people who wanted their father to be happy.’
A proud husband
It is of no concern to her that, in their household, Zoë is the more famous of the two names. And it’s no concern to Gawn, either. ‘I couldn’t be doing with a man who felt emasculated because his wife had the higher profile. The fact that he doesn’t is one of the many reasons I like him so much. And I have to say he’s very proud of me.
‘I’m known for trying to sneak out the back door to avoid first-night parties. Not Gawn. He loves showing me off. I always worry about whether my clothes and make-up are right. The point is that I like the business of what I do, but not the show; it doesn’t come naturally to me. And I’d sooner let the work speak for me.’
One topic on which she is unabashedly vocal, and particularly articulate, is the British way of death, following the loss of her father in 1993. ‘He’d been struggling with prostate cancer that developed into something else over the course of three years. By the time he told us, his illness was terminal. He was in a lot of pain and given six months to live. As it happened, he survived that long and then a further ten months through sheer willpower because he wanted to see his dream of the Globe Theatre being built on the South Bank become a reality.
Dignity in death
‘When he was no longer able to function, he wanted to die at home on his own terms and without pain. But that was denied him. That seemed an incredible injustice to me: that an intelligent, strong, fit, bright human being, whose quality of life had become zilch, wasn’t allowed to die with dignity struck me as an outrage.
‘It was horrific – and so avoidable. It still makes me incandescent with anger,’ she says, eyes blazing. ‘Why should you have to go to Dignitas in Switzerland? You should be allowed to die in the way you’d like to die in the comfort and familiarity of your own home. My sisters and I wanted to help Dad die because the doctor either wouldn’t or couldn’t. As a result, he as good as labelled us potential murderesses and proceeded to ration my father’s supply of morphine.
‘That meant he’d sleep until about two in the morning and then wake up in great pain. One of us would have to ring the doctor for a new prescription and then jump in the car in the middle of the night to find a chemist that was open. It was hideous and it could have been so much more gentle and calm and, yes, dignified. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.’ Indeed, it’s why she is such an enthusiastic supporter of the Dignity in Dying campaign.
How she keeps her figure
Enviably slim, she keeps her youthful figure with Pilates. ‘But then I’ve had a powerful incentive. I’ve had two hip operations – the first was a resurfacing ten years ago, and was caused by arthritis, but the second one was a full replacement. So I worked very hard before the operation to get my muscles as strong as possible, then went to the gym afterwards and swam in the sea on holiday so that everything would knit together properly and I could get back on stage.’
She smiles. So, finally, after the trauma with her father, I’m looking at a happy woman? ‘Oh, yes,’ she says, and she doesn’t hesitate. ‘I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m happy in the here and now.’ A glance at her watch. ‘I don’t know about you,’ Zoë says conspiratorially, ‘but I could murder a Martini.’
Read more about Zoë on Wikipedia
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Saga Magazine.Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month