I was totally thrilled when I got the job on Honour. I was really young, not long out of drama school. It was the second play I did at the National, after The Coast of Utopia. I wanted it so badly. I was desperate for it. It was like working with acting royalty. I responded to the play at that particular time and at that age. I was in my early twenties. I hadn’t personally but a lot of my friends had been through their parents’ marriage break-up. Just like in the play.
Eileen Atkins never offered me any advice on Honour, she isn’t like that. She’s so extraordinarily talented that she could play that card, being the Dame, if she wanted to, but she is so far from that. She’s just part of the group, that’s the most wonderful thing about her. Joanna Murray-Smith is fantastic too. She’s a great help in the rehearsal room, and she’s very open. If you say, “I don’t know if this quite works, can we not change things?”, she isn’t rigid or precious. If something isn’t working, she changes it.
I didn’t realise how amazing Roger Michell is when we did Honour. I just thought it was blissful working with him, very relaxed. He makes it easy for you as an actor, he’s very supportive, incisive and detailed. After Honour, I did the film Enduring Love with him as well, but this is the first time we’ve worked together while we’ve been together as a couple. It’s something that neither of us particularly wanted or thought we could do - you need some space - but luckily, Roger and I don’t mind being together a lot of the time.
The Female of the Species wasn’t a planned reunion. Rog came across the play in LA. It was going to be done in New York, but he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to do it here with Eileen. Then he asked me to read it and said, “if you would like to do it, there’s this part I would like you to do”. I would say it was accidental, I don’t think it was preordained or anything.
In The Female of the Species, I play Molly, a student of Eileen’s feminist author character, Margot, who’s very obsessed with her and her work and I’ve visited her house uninvited and … enough said. There’s the potential for violence. It’s definitely not like being Eileen’s daughter, like I was in Honour, although in some ways, it’s similar. Molly thinks Margot is her surrogate mother in a strange way. She has no mother herself so I think she wants Margot to take on that mantle, but Margot is not up for that at all.
We did research on lots of feminists because the play touches on feminism as a whole. It’s certainly not a play about Germaine Greer. It’s based on a certain instance in her life, but I don’t think Joanna would want to be shackled by writing about a real-life person so Margot is very far from who Germaine Greer is. We have obviously discussed feminism a lot and the people who are crucial to that movement.
It’s interesting having women of different ages in the room, like Eileen, Sophie Thompson and then me. Eileen is in her seventies and can remember a time when women didn’t have the freedom or liberties that we enjoy now. I come from a different place. I don’t think I am a feminist but then I don’t know how many true feminists there are left in my generation. We expect quality and we think we get it. But actually if you take it onto a broader, global spectrum, there’s still huge work to be done.
- Anna Maxwell Martin was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Female of the Species receives its UK premiere on 16 July 2008 (previews from 10 July) at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, where it’s booking until 4 October 2008.