20 Questions With...Anna Chancellor
Date: 26 November 2001
Actress Anna Chancellor, about to reopen in David Mamet's Boston Marriage, comments on the author's "blokeishness" & reveals her desire to be Queen Elizabeth.
For much of the population, the name and visage of actress Anna Chancellor conjures up images of Hugh Grant's jilted fiancée from Four Weddings and a Funeral or the saucy Mancunian femme fatale from the long-running Boddington's Venetian canal TV advert.
Theatregoers, however, will also be familiar with Chancellor thanks to her numerous and distinguished stage outings. Most famously, she appeared at the National Theatre and on Broadway with Antony Sher in Pam Gems' multi award-winning 1986 play, Stanley, for which Chancellor herself received an Olivier nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Chancellor's other stage credits have included Faithless, the double bill of Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound, Lady Windermere's Fan, The Prisoners of War and the RSC's King Lear with Nigel Hawthorne. She was also a founder of the Wicked Theatre Company, producing numerous Christmas shows such as The Nativity, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
Chancellor was most recently on stage co-starring with Zoe Wanamaker in David Mamet's Boston Marriage. The production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was first seen for a limited run at the Donmar Warehouse in March 2001 and is now reopening at the West End's New Ambassadors Theatre, where it begins previews this week.
Date & place of birth
Born 27 April 1965 in Kew. But I was brought up on Exmoor in Somerset. I came up to London when I was 16, to live with an aunt.
Lives now in...
Shepherd's Bush, west London
At LAMDA. I went to a convent school before that, but I was never very clever at school, and I've got hardly any O Levels to my name. I did a lot of acting there, though, so wanted to go to drama school because acting was the only thing I was actually good at. My life was quite simple in terms of choices - it's harder if you're good at lots of things. But then I left drama school in my final year, when I got pregnant with my daughter, Poppy, who is now 14 1/2.
First big break
I didn't work for a long time really - I was very unemployed at the beginning of my career. I used to go for endless auditions for tiny parts in obscure plays, but never got them. My first job was at Pitlochry Rep, playing the court stenographer in Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution. I would sit there writing endless stream of consciousness things, which I thought would end up very highbrow but didn't. My next job was for cable television, doing a soap opera called Jupiter Moon. I was playing Mercedes Page, doing a PhD in space navigation. We did it for almost a year, about a 100 episodes in all, and that sorted things out for me financially a bit - it was the first proper money I'd earned! So my first big break was in quite lowbrow TV!
Career highlights to date
The film Four Weddings and a Funeral was a big turning point, of course, but at the same time, I also did a famous Boddington's advert set on a canal that was a big turning point for me financially. After Four Weddings, I started to get better jobs on television, such as John Thaw's assistant in Kavanagh, and then doing Stanley at the National Theatre and then on Broadway with Antony Sher was another huge turning point for me.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
When I was unemployed so often at the beginning of my career, I got involved in putting on pantomimes - every Christmas at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill - that became cult viewing. I did them with Kevin Allen, who is now a film director, and Poppy's dad Jock, a poet, used to be the MC. I loved theatre at that level. I loved the amateur dramatics of it - it was fun, but it was also important to learn how to stand your ground in that environment. I did them for four years, and things like that still interest me. I would love standing on the side of stage and seeing the kids in the audience roaring with laughter.
But Stanley was an enormous highlight, for many reasons. I had a lot to do with Selina Cadell, who is an incredibly experienced actress, and when you work very closely with someone like that who wants to impart their knowledge, you never stop working and learning. I also became quite close to Pam Gems, who wrote Stanley. That's been a wonderful thing, and I still go and see her.
I also loved doing those two comedies, Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound. I thought we were a bit like performers at the end of Brighton Pier. There was such an old-fashioned rep feeling to it, this cast of actors doing two plays together. We used to laugh terribly onstage.
I've been very lucky with the people I've worked with. I've already mentioned Selina Cadell, but I was also very happy working with Sian Thomas on King Lear. I was Regan and she was Goneril to Nigel Hawthorne's Lear, and we went through a lot together. It was directed by Ninagawa, and we did it in Tokyo in a very hot August, living on the sealed 16th floor of a hotel there. Sian was also very helpful to me, and was very generous sharing her knowledge about verse. And now I'm working with Zoe Wanamaker, who is also lovely and kind.
I recently did a film, Crush, and I really liked the young Scottish guy, John McKay, who directed it. I had a lot of admiration for him, as I watched him work. I felt we really worked together on developing my character. We would stand together and watch the monitor after a take, and his notes would be very clear; I felt connected to him in a greedy way. I've also enjoyed working with Phyllida Lloyd on Boston Marriage - she's very good and interesting, open-minded and supportive.
I love restoration comedy. Selina runs workshops on them at the National Studio, and I've gone down quite often to study them there. Working on scenes from The Rivals and Congreve's Way of the World, I thought they were remarkable. How rare it is to find sexual dynamics written so astutely and with such beautiful language.
What role would you most like to play still?
I'd love to play Rosalind in As You Like It. I played her when I was very young at school - I was probably 13 - and I loved it. Scenes from it still go bantering around my head, and I'd like to have another look at it. I'd also love to do some Beckett, such as Winnie in Happy Days.
Having appeared in Stanley both here and in New York, what differences, if any, did you notice between West End and Broadway audiences?
The spaces we did it in were very different. In the Cottesloe, the audience was very close, you felt their intense concentration but didn't feel like you were losing them. At the Circle in Square, the audience was so spread out, and also people didn't necessarily know who Stanley Spencer was, so it didn't engage them so much.
What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I feel quite strongly that lottery money should not just go on big buildings, but also on schemes to support talented people to go into areas that don't see theatre and create theatrical events for them. Theatre is fun, acting is fun, and so many kids are bored with nothing to do. I would like to see them being engaged - to put on plays, to write them - on the edges where the circulation of theatre doesn't usually get to at all.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
I've always thought Queen Elizabeth is quite cool. I find her impressive - it's always excited me seeing her looking out from all those pictures, looking half sexy, half stern.
I love George Eliot's Middlemarch - I read it because I had to audition for a part I didn't in the end get, but I read it quite closely, and it's been boomeranging back in my consciousness since. I also love the Philip Pullman trilogy - they're like underground Harry Potter's, written for children but also suitable for adults. I shared them with Poppy on holiday last Christmas, and we were tearing the books out of each other's hands.
Favourite holiday destinations
I like France. Last Christmas we were in the South, near Marseille. But I'd love to go back to Japan. We were stuck in Tokyo, but I'd love to go around the islands, which most people don't get to see.
"That'll teach me to put all my eggs in one bastard!"
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Quite a lot of things interest me, but I'm totally unqualified - I might have worked with children, I imagine.
Why especially did you want to accept your role in Boston Marriage?
Everything! Mamet, Phyllida, Zoe - I hadn't met Lindsay, but she's amazing, too.
Some people consider David Mamet's works misogynistic - what do you think and how would you persuade someone either way?
Some people think he's taking the piss out of these women - making these rather highbrow women seem absurd. But he makes everyone seem quite absurd, doesn't he? If I didn't know anything about him and his reputation, it wouldn't occur to me that this play was written by a misogynist at all. But he's quite a bloke! I can imagine him with a gun over his shoulder, ready to shoot deer!
How do you come back fresh to a role after a break of several months, as you've had here since your Donmar run?
I'm a little nervous, but I'm also looking forward to it. It's like meeting someone again who you haven't seen for a while, and wondering how you are going to get on again. Will it still be there? But it will be different in a proscenium theatre, and it's a play that will suit the New Ambassadors. Also, I love doing a play before Christmas: I love the dark evenings, and the fact that it's a good time to entertain people. And it's a very entertaining play, definitely.
What's your favourite line from Boston Marriage?
"I'd informed you at the time that you maintained an overdank and fetid atmosphere in your solarium, it dropped on my reticule and now it's rotted your bible."
What's the funniest thing that has happened backstage with this production to date?
My jacket was so tight that the button would pop off every time I came off stage. So poor Lindsay would be dashing around after me, trying to gather everything that fell off from this pristine stage.
- Anna Chancellor was speaking to Mark Shenton
opens at the West End's New Ambassadors Theatre on 3 December 2001, following previews from 28 November.