While actress Geraldine James became a household name after playing the role of Rose Garrity in the TV series Band of Gold, her career has encompassed plenty of theatre as well as television and film.

James' screen debut was in The Sweeney, but it was her role in the TV film Dummy - about a deaf girl who is sent to prison - that won her first acclaim in the form of a Critics Award for Best Actress. James went on to feature on television in The History Man, Jewel in the Crown (for which she was nominated for a BAFTA), Rebecca, Sins, Hearts of Gold and White Teeth, among others.

In 1982, she took the part of Mirabehn in Richard Attenborough's big screen epic Gandhi and followed this up with film roles in Moll Flanders, The Tall Guy, The Man Who Knew Too Much, She's Been Away (with Peggy Ashcroft - for which both women won the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film festival in 1989), The Luzhin Defence, Odour of Chrysanthemums and the soon-to-be-released Calendar Girls with Helen Mirren.

On stage, James has worked with Peter Hall on his productions of Cymbeline, Lysistrata and The Merchant of Venice (playing Portia to Dustin Hoffman's Shylock in the last). Her other theatre credits have included Death and the Maiden, Hedda Gabler, Give Me an Answer Do and, most recently, Faith Healer at the Almeida.

James is currently starring as Madame Ranevskya in the Oxford Stage Company's new production of Chekhov's 1904 classic, The Cherry Orchard, which continues until 5 July 2003 on a two-month tour, including a limited three-week season from 10 to 28 June 2003 at London's Riverside Studios.


Date & place of birth
Born 6 July 1950 in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Lives now in...
South-west London.

Training
The Drama Centre in London. I graduated 30 years ago - oh my god, that sounds terrible. Don't say that, say "a long time ago".

First big break
A film called Dummy that I did. Although very few people saw it, it was my big chance. It was a true story about a deaf girl in Yorkshire who ends up in prison. I played her from the age of 15-37. Frank Rodham directed and it was shot by Chris Menges who is a brilliant director of photography - he's also a director now. When I made Dummy, I'd only ever done one episode of The Sweeney. So it was a baptism of fire and an amazing opportunity because Frank cast against type. He gave me the opportunity to play a part that I had no connection with at all. That was my first leading role and I won the Critics Award for Best Actress so it shot me into the limelight and started my telly career.

Career highlights to date
Dummy. A member of the deaf girl's family objected to the way she was portrayed in it so it was never repeated, but that was my starting point. Also, Jewel in the Crown, Band of Gold, Cymbeline with Peter Hall and The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman. Also Sins for TV, which was fantastic writing by Billy Ivory and with the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite. I also did a Brian Friel play, Faith Healer, at the Almeida last year, which was brilliant.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I did Pal Joey at Northcott Theatre in Exeter, and we had great fun, singing and dancing - it was great to be a hoofing about in a musical. Also playing Imogen at the National in Cymbeline, which we took to Russia, Greece and Japan. That was the first time I'd worked with Peter Hall. Doing The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman was a great privilege, then I did Lysistrata, which was all in mask and full of dancing and songs, with a wonderful group of people. I made really good friends. Faith Healer was a great experience, and I did Hedda Gabler which was lovely because my husband (Joseph Blatchley) directed. For that, I got digs, rather than staying with him, so that I could go out with the rest of the actors. It was a good decision because it helped me become part of the company.

Favourite co-stars
Ben Kingsley, I did a play with him called The Betrothal at the Man in the Moon Theatre - it was a lovely intimate theatre, it's so sad it has closed. It was just the two of us in that, and of course, we did Gandhi together. Morgan Freeman, whose girlfriend I played in Moll Flanders. It was just a small part, but I was keen to work with him, and he was the sweetest man. Charles Dance, Andrew Becker and Niall Buggy who I did Turning Over at the Bush with. And of course, Peggy Ashcroft. To share that award with her (Best Actress, Venice Film Festival, 1989) - can you imagine what a proud moment that was? She collected the award, as I was rehearsing, and sent me a telegram afterwards that said: "Laurel, rejoicing, love Hardy". I adored her. We got very close on Jewel in the Crown, and she read one of Shakespeare's sonnets at my wedding.

Favourite directors
Peter Hall is definitely very high on the list, as would be any director who loves actors. Peter really appreciates actors and values hard work, but it is a personality thing. I've worked with him four times - he also directed the film I did with Peggy - and we have always worked well together. Julian Jarrold who I've worked with on telly for White Teeth and Crime and Punishment, David Yeats who I did State of Play with. Dickie Attenborough. I was filming Gandhi for four months so my character was originally bigger, but we were all cut because the film was about Gandhi and the original cut was five hours long. Still, to watch Attenborough and his crew, like David Tomblin, and a lovely cast - Ian Charleson, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen ... it was the first big movie I'd ever done and what an experience. Mel Smith who directed The Tall Guy, Jonathan Kent I loved at the Almeida and Dominic Dromgoole, who I'm working with now. It's very important to get on with the director because you're revealing your inner heart and soul, so you need to trust them. My husband is also a really good director. You can call me biased, but he's very nice to work with.

Favourite playwrights
Brian Friel, Sam Shepard, Shakespeare, all the Irish playwrights (Synge, O'Casey), Harold Pinter. I actually love Noel Coward, although I haven't done much - his wit is incredible. Also Edward Bond, an amazing writer, and Sarah Kane. I did a workshop on 4.48 Psychosis, she was wonderful.

Which do you most prefer - working on stage or screen?
I prefer the one I haven't just done. But it's like coming home when I'm doing a play. I feel so comfortable in the theatre, although I'm possibly more experienced in telly. I've done least in movies. I'd love to do more, but as you get older, parts tend to be smaller character parts, which is very difficult. Working on screen is the antithesis of a play. You get no rehearsals and only one chance to get it right. It's very frightening and intimidating. Band of Gold was great, to be able to gradually develop the part over three series. I was reluctant to do it because of the option to make more series - I didn't want to get tied down - but I was thrilled at how interesting it was to grow with the character.

What roles would you most like to play still?
A lot of Chekhov, Pinter - all the playwrights that I mentioned. As you get older, different parts open up. There are great parts in Shakespeare. I like to think there's still lots to do.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Ben-Hur at BAC. It was so inventive. I love things like that - where a dining room table is suddenly transformed into a chariot race. I thought it was very, very good.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of theatre?
I'd say make it much cheaper and more available to families and people outside London. Or alternatively open up opportunities for companies like the Oxford Stage Company so they can do classics which have invariably got big casts - they need proper funding so that's possible. At the moment, in order to tour, actors have to subsidise themselves with telly work. And when you look at top salaries of people in musicals, it's completely disproportionate in comparison. It's great to work with this company - which has a history taking good plays with good people to new places - but it's difficult to make that decision to take four months out, particularly when the touring subsidies are so poor.

If you hadn't become a actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would probably be in law I think. When I played a barrister in Kavanagh QC, I thought I'd have liked to have done that, but it's a very difficult thing to do indeed. There was never anything else for me. When I was very young, I wanted to be a make-up artist, but that would involve having to get up far too early.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I used to take great delight in saying I wouldn't change with anyone. But, off the top of my head, I suppose I might like to swap with someone in eastern China - not now though because of SARS. Perhaps I'd live on a Mongolian goat farm on the opposite end of the earth or in Russia. Oh no, I tell you what, I'll go to that little place in Siberia where the Russia literary figures were all exiled.

Favourite books
The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It's about the beginnings of Australia.

Favourite holiday destinations
Ohhhh ... now you're asking. Ireland. St Ermin's Mount in Donegal.

Favourite after-show haunts
My home, with my family, sitting around the kitchen table doing what we call a post-mortem. I do like to go out sometimes. When I was in New York, I loved going to piano bars, having a drink and listening to someone playing a sexy quiet piano.

Why did you want to accept your part in The Cherry Orchard?
Because it's one of the greatest plays ever written. I've always wanted to play Ranevskya. It's a seminal theatrical role, but then they all are in The Cherry Orchard. I've played Varya before, but not Anya. I'd love to play all of Chekhov's women. Arkadina in The Seagull in particular, but there are others too.

What are the best & worst aspects of touring?
I haven't toured since I went to Russia, Greece and Japan with the National Theatre. The best bits are seeing places you don't know and noticing the differences in audiences. Also keeping the play fresh by being in different places. The worst parts touring are being away from home and not having enough money.

What's the most funniest thing that's happened during rehearsals of The Cherry Orchard
Nothing really compared to when I was rehearsing Lysistrata. For that, we were doing a scene one day, and Bob Horwell was playing a ludicrous character in a comic mask, he was hilarious. In the middle of rehearsal, still in costume, he got on a bicycle and rode outside and down the road. Some police stopped him and tried to arrest him, and all the while he stayed in character. They didn't realise immediately that he was just a mad actor. It was so funny. No rehearsal joke has ever lived up to that.

What are your future plans?
I'm waiting to hear about a film - they want Susan Sarandon, so I'm second choice - but it probably won't come to anything. I've got a film called Calendar Girls out in September and two tellys in the summer - State of Play for the BBC and Hearts of Gold.

- Geraldine James was talking to Hannah Kennedy


Oxford Stage Company's tour of The Cherry Orchard opened at the Queen's Theatre in Barnstaple on 8 May and continues on tour until 5 July 2003, visiting Exeter, Eastbourne, Bath, London and Oxford.