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20 Questions with... Handbagged's Fenella Woolgar

Fenella Woolgar plays the young Margaret Thatcher in Moira Buffini's play Handbagged, which opens at the Tricycle Theatre this week. Woolgar, whose stage credits include Motortown and Circle Mirror Transformation, recently won the Clarence Derwent Award for her role in Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic last year.

By • London
Fenella Woolgar (young Margaret Thatcher) and Stella Gonet (older Margaret Thatcher) in rehearsals for Handbagged
Fenella Woolgar (young Margaret Thatcher) and Stella Gonet (older Margaret Thatcher) in rehearsals for Handbagged

Where did you grow up?
I spent my nursery years in the States - from seven up I was in Sussex.

What made you want to become an actor?
Imitating parents of people at nursery school in the States and realising I made people laugh.

If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
The only other thing I'd love to do is art but I've never trained. And art's about as bad a prospect as acting isn't it?

First big break?
Bright Young Things. It was so wonderful of Stephen Fry to take a punt on an unknown. I heard rumours some of the producers wanted Kate Moss for the part. I mean I know we look similar but really...

Career highlights to date?
I'd say Bright Young Things, working with Mike Leigh, and strangely a couple of things on radio - Flaw in the Motor, Dust in the Blood by Trevor Preston and playing Edith Wharton [in The Jinx Element and Ethan Frome]. I also hugely enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation.

Any regrets?
That's far too personal a question!

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I have a weird memory of being taken to see The Mysteries in the NT Cottosloe as a child. I hadn't a clue what was going on but I thought it was all very mysterious and smoky.

And the last?
I loved London Road and (appropriately given this production) This House, which I thought was brilliant.

How did it feel to win the Clarence Derwent Award?
Bloomin' marvellous. Over the moon. I'd clocked up a few nominations but no wins. I was the Bridget Jones of awards.

Where do you keep your awards?
Look don't rub it in - I've just fessed up that I've just the one so I suppose that will take pride of place on the ceiling above my bed so I can stare at it. At the moment it's in the fireplace.

Sorry! Why did you want to get involved in Handbagged?
Because I thought after hoola-hooping on stage as a yoga bunny American girl in Circle Mirror Transformation for the Royal Court, playing Margaret Thatcher might be a fun contrast.

Is Thatcher a daunting role?
Only in so far as the expectations of others. Also obviously people have strong opinions and there's vast amounts of footage, books etc written on her - and only so much you can do in a few weeks prep.

Is it difficult to avoid Spitting Image-type caricature?
Less so if you do your research. You're obviously playing someone who had complete belief so there's little point stepping out of that and winking at the audience. Having said that, this is a satirical comedy so there are moments when it's ok to nod towards that. But there's also scope for more naturalism and realism and I like that balance.

Poster image for Handbagged
Poster image for Handbagged

Why was her relationship with the Queen so tense?
I think they were such truly different people. In background, emotional temperament, interests, instincts, experience and world view. Gosh that would make a weekly chat over a cup of tea awkward wouldn't it?

Are you enjoying working at the Tricycle?
Yes, very friendly people and Indhu [Rubasingham] is lovely and great fun.

How do you unwind?
My children tend to be brilliant wind-you-up wind-you-down mechanisms. We don't truly all relax until we hit uninterrupted rolling green hills which we try to do every weekend.

If you could swap places with anyone for a day, who would it be?
On days when I'm working, with whoever is looking after my children; on days when I'm at home looking after the kids, probably with a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas for some peace and quiet.

Who are your acting idols?
Alec Guiness, Albert Finney, Peggy Ashcroft and many more. Also terrific young ones like Burn Gorman and Anna Maxwell Martin.

Favourite book?
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi.

What's next?
Hopefully a call from [film directors] Lukas Moodysson or Todd Solondz. Failing that an emergency course in unwinding.

Handbagged opens at the Tricycle on Tuesday (1 October 2013, previews from 26 September)

What's changed? Read our 20 Questions with Woolgar from 2005

Tags: 20 QuestionsOff-West EndFenella WoolgarTricycle


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