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20 Questions With... Frances O'Connor

Actress Frances O’Connor – currently starring playing TS Eliot’s troubled first wife in the first London revival of Tom & Viv - tells us about period dramas, wanting to be Audrey Hepburn & why women should speak their mind.

By • West End


Actress Frances O'Connor, who was born in England but grew up in Australia, is best known for her film and television roles, particularly in period dramas including Madame Bovary (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe) and The Importance of Being Earnest.

She appeared on the West End stage starring as Maggie opposite Brendan Fraser’s Brick in Anthony Page’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Lyric in 2001. Prior to that, she appeared in numerous productions with Melbourne Theatre Company, including Kidstakes, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Blabbermouth, The Lady from the Sea, The Grapes of Wrath, Much Ado About Nothing and The Dutch Courtesan.

Amongst O’Connor’s television credits are Roundabout, Karaoke Kamakazi and Law of the Land as well as The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, Halifax, Try to Stay Calm, Feds, The Man from Snowy River, GP, Blue Heelers and Shark Bay.

On film, she starred, along with Jude Law, in Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: A.I., for which she was nominated for an American Film Institute Award. She also had leading roles in The Bathing Boxes, Mansfield Park, A Little Bit of Soul, Kiss or Kill, Thank God He Met Lizzie, Love and Other Catastrophes, All About Adam, Bedazzled, Windtalkers, Timeline, The Lazarus Child, Three Dollars and Piccadilly Jim.

O’Connor has returned to the London stage to play Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the troubled first wife of poet TS Eliot, in the first major London revival of Tom and Viv. Michael Hastings’ controversial play premiered at the Royal Court in 1984 and was made into a film starring 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson. At the Almeida, Will Keen stars opposite O’Connor in Lindsay Posner’s production.


Date & place of birth
Born 12 June 1967 in Wantage, Oxfordshire.

Lives now in
Hampstead (north London). I’ve been there about four years. I have a son who’s 16 months old and this is my first job back since becoming a mother. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it’s been an adventure.

What made you want to become an actor?
I have always loved performing and being other people and investigating why people do what they do. I guess I’m pretty creative and acting just seemed like a good option.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I have no idea what I’d do - I think I’d be in trouble! I would have loved to have been a writer because I love stories, so maybe a novelist. Although I wouldn’t really know where to start.

Career highlights to date
I guess doing Artificial Intelligence with Steven Spielberg. And doing Mansfield Park and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof::E8821000978446}. The Importance of Being Earnest was a lot of fun with a nice group of people, so I really enjoyed that, too.

Favourite playwrights
I love Harold Pinter, I think he’s brilliant. I also love David Mamet. Neil LaBute’s pretty interesting. And Chekhov is pretty good, too!

Favourite directors
Tim Fywell is really fantastic. I worked with him on Madame Bovary. All the directors I’ve worked with have been really good actually.

Favourite co-stars
I don’t want to be biased. They’ve all been great!

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
I think the first thing was an Australian show called The Magic Pudding. It was about a pudding that came alive and was very naughty because it ran around everywhere. I thought it was a bit scary. I was only five. I haven’t seen any theatre for a while, I must confess. But the Donmar’s production of Pinter’s Old Times (in 2004) starring Helen McCrory was just fantastic.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Audrey Hepburn. I’d love to spend a day on the set of Roman Holiday as her.

Favourite holiday destinations
Corsica. I discovered it recently. It’s lovely to go there. It’s a really popular holiday destination with the French, but not so popular with the British yet it seems. I don’t have anywhere planned for after Tom and Viv. I probably won’t go to Corsica then as it might be too cold. I might try and get somewhere warmer.

Favourite books
I love the books by the Australian writer Tim Winton.

Favourite after-show haunts
My own lounge room I think! Or the bar of the Almeida, probably.

Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
I really like varying it. I keep meaning to come back into theatre more often, but films tend to keep coming back. Ideally, I like to vary the work I do so that it’s more interesting.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I guess give us some more money! I’m probably not an authority on the matter, but the smaller fringe theatres need a lot more assistance.

Why did you want to accept your role as Viv in Tom and Viv?
She’s just such a complex character, so I was drawn to her because of that. She has such journey and I get to play her when she’s young and when she’s 59, so it is a really great challenge for me and such an interesting story as well. I love playing her because she’s such a complex character, such a free spirit, and there are so many different aspects to her. It’s meaty stuff to play every night. You never get bored - I can’t imagine that I will get bored at all during the run. And the other cast members are fantastic, so I enjoy playing alongside them.

Did you know much about TS Eliot & his first wife before this?
I saw the film. Before that, I didn’t know much about them at all, but I loved his poetry.

How did you research the role? Did you draw on any aspects of your own character or experience?
Viv is a bit of a drama queen. Most actresses have that aspect to them I think, so there’s that similarity between us. Other than that, no, I don’t think we’re really similar. There are some really great biographies of Viv, such as Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot, which I loved. It includes entries from her diary and letters. She had a long time when she was completely together. Historically, she's had a bit of a bum deal being branded the mad wife of TS Eliot.

Do you think Viv’s commitment to a mental asylum was justified?
During the period of the play (the 1920s and 30s), any kind of woman with a personality could be classified as insane. Apparently, it was a phenomenon. If a woman just wanted to kick up a fuss or had any sense of sexuality, she was “hysterical”. Women just weren't allowed a voice at that time. With Viv, the more she’s not allowed a voice, the more "insane" she becomes. In some ways, it’s understandable that her husband and parents thought she was crazy - she's not an easy woman, by any means. But she had problems with menstruation, which made her erratic, and the drugs she was taking made her quite drunk a lot of the time, so it must have been incredibly difficult for her to appear "normal" at all.

What are your future plans?
I guess to do more theatre work, but I’ll see what comes along.

- Frances O'Connor was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


Tom and Viv continues its limited season at the Almeida Theatre until 4 November 2006.


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