Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: I am becoming a better actor offstage than on

We judge others based our own experiences, on stage and in life
October 6, 2022

I am often asked why I chose to be an actor. Colleagues list seminal performances witnessed when young, or an almost spiritual calling after appearing in a school play. Looking back, I realise my first school play may have subconsciously affected my choice of career.

My primary school chose to stage a version of the—by today’s standards—distastefully titled old film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I had seen it several times and already knew all Snow White’s lines, so was devastated when I was cast as Dopey. Not to be defeated, my mum made me a splendid costume. She sewed a little train on my dressing gown, made an impressive cotton-wool beard and a perky cap to hide the elastic holding it in place.

On our first entrance, the seven diminutive boys and girls had to go up three steps onto the platform, singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.” Somehow, I managed to get entangled in my train and fell flat on my face, which was smothered by the displaced beard. After a gasp, the audience laughed. When I stood up, they gave me a round of applause. It sounded very nice. Never one to resist milking a laugh, I fell down again. And again. And again. The audience loved it, until some of the other mothers became hostile.

Nobody was looking at Snow White.

Somewhere deep in my psyche, a seed was planted that pretending could get me attention and approval. 

There’s nothing unusual in that. Everybody does it—you don’t have to be an actor. In real life we change our demeanour with different people. The doctor, the baby, the lover, the boss, all see various versions of ourselves. We pretend to be what they will approve of. It is not intentionally deceitful. We shouldn’t talk to the doctor in the same way as our lover.

 My mother worked in a sedate department store. One day I went to see her and was directed to the staffroom. There I found my mother dancing and singing “Knees Up Mother Brown”, shrieking with laughter with her colleagues. I barely recognised her, and she was shocked when she saw me. This was not her usual stern mother role, but a fun-loving bawdy woman who I only ever saw on that one occasion.

My husband, John Thaw, a consummate actor by trade, suffered from bouts of depression. I would say to him: “act being happy”, and it sometimes worked. I am trying to add happiness to my portrayal of Sheila. It is easy to find myself almost enjoying playing a miserable scene. So, if I am fatigued, I force myself to walk. If I feel sad, I remember a happy time and recreate it in my mind. I need to change the pace, my facial expression, my tone of voice, my walk, just as I would if playing a character. I am subsequently in danger of being a better actor off stage than on.

 We need to alter the perception of age; to change the world’s view of elderly folk as decrepit and past it. I didn’t “have a fall”—I fell. I don’t just want to talk about hip replacements. I even remember what sex is like. I care about the future of the world.

All this raises the question: “Who is the real me?” But the answer will not change people’s perception of me.

The other day I was driving down a road that was empty except for one cyclist who was weaving all over the place. I realised he hadn’t heard my hybrid electric car, so I gently pipped my horn before passing him. It made him jump and wobble and he swore quietly and grumbled a bit, but when he saw my white hair, he went mad with rage: “You stupid old c… They shouldn’t let you drive. At your age. You should be put away”—et cetera et cetera.

I opened my window and tried to talk to him, explain that I was trying to save him from an accident and by the way a very good driver. But he wouldn’t have it. My role to him was an old  woman who made him feel foolish. His role to me was a beautiful Lycra-clad boy perhaps nursing some previous hurt. 

However well we play our role, our character will be interpreted by others according to their life experience. Just like the audience of a play in the theatre.