Since leaving RADA, actress Fenella Woolgar has appeared on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Manchester Royal Exchange, The Miser at Salisbury Playhouse, As You Like It at the Manchester Royal Exchange, The Cherry Orchard at the Theatre Royal York, How the Other Half Loves at Watford’s Palace Theatre, Charley’s Aunt at Sheffield Crucible, Way Upstream at Derby Playhouse, and The Playboy of the Western World at Bristol Old Vic.
Her performance as Agatha Runcible in Stephen Fry’s 2003 film Bright Young Things earned her nominations for Best Supporting Actress at the London Film Critics’ Awards, BIFA Most Promising Newcomer, Evening Standard Film Awards Best Newcomer and Empire Awards Best Newcomer. Her other film credits have included Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty, Richard E Grant’s Wah Wah, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and AKA.
On television, Woolgar has appeared as Arabella French in BBC drama He Knew He Was Right as well as Rome, Eroica, The Way We Live Now, People Like Us and Poirot.
Woolgar has now returned to the stage and to acclaimed touring company Shared Experience, with whom she previously appeared in Martin Sherman’s adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel A Passage to India. In Brontë, written and directed by Shared Experience joint artistic director Polly Teale, Woolgar plays Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë whose life is entwined with those of her writer sisters Anne and Emily and their brother Branwell.
Date & place of birth
I was born in north-east London, in Hillingdon, in a really hideous part of the town. But I was brought up in the States until I was about seven, in Connecticut. I went back there in 2000 and that was pretty amazing. It was fantastic to go back and I saw some neighbours of my parents – they actually cried when they saw me. It was very sweet.
Lives now in
I’ve lived with a flatmate in south-east London for about three years.
I trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), I loved it. I had a fantastic time. I had been to university first. I think that helps to prepare you for the intensive training at drama school.
What made you decide to become an actor?
Growing up in the States and imitating people around me and finding that it vaguely amused people, really. From time to time, I will do impressions still, but it tends to be someone I’m working with at the time. I haven’t got Polly Teale down yet.
First big break
I consider getting into RADA as my big break because that really was such an amazing training ground. I learned so much.
Career highlights to date
Bright Young Things and He Knew He Was Right, I loved doing those. On stage, I really enjoyed A Passage to India (also with Shared Experience) and Midsummer at Manchester Royal Exchange. That was a very physical production – it should have had another life and come to town. I also really enjoyed the Mike Leigh film, Vera Drake.
It’s difficult not to mention every actor I’ve ever worked with! Michael Sheen and David Tennant have to be my favourites really, because they are too talented, too funny and too supportive.
Polly Teale and Nancy Meckler. I hugely enjoyed working with Nancy last year and it’s great to be back at Shared Experience. Mike Leigh is another favourite. He’s incredibly thorough, you get to play a full person even if you are only doing four lines. Stephen Fry as well because he is very happy - the set for Bright Young Things was so happy. And Simon Cellan Jones who I did Eroica (about Beethoven) with on television. He was immensely enthusiastic. He wasn’t even into classical music – but to hear him you’d have thought he was the biggest fan.
Shakespeare’s got to be number one up there - he so incredibly brilliant, how can anyone be that wise?! Chekhov gives a great deal of freedom and truth to the actors. I loved The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. It was such a brilliantly structured play and was so moving and funny and disturbing. I’m ashamed there are no women here in my playwrights’ list, but I haven’t done enough plays by women yet!
What roles would you most like to play still?
Every Shakespeare, particularly Rosalind and Portia, every Restoration and every Greek lead! I’d also like to play Peggy in The Playboy of the Western World. I’m half Irish, but they’d probably go for a flame-haired lass before me. On film and TV, I love it all. I think that film particularly allows you to spy on people very close up and you can get to see the absolutely inner self. But then on stage, you get the full acting challenge every night - you can’t take a break and there’s no second take. If I had to choose between stage and screen it would be stage… and then film.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
Lord only knows. I wanted to be an actress from the age of three. My only other passion is art - drawing and sculpture - which is just as precarious a profession. I draw in my spare time. I’ve come across loads of actors who do actually. I think acting and art sort of go together. I’m not very good at the art, though - I don’t do it enough. I think when I’m an old granny I’ll pack myself off to art school.
What advice would you give to government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I’m not an economist so it’s really hard to comment because I’ll probably come up with some pie in the sky idea. But the government should remove VAT on tickets to make going to the theatre less prohibitively expensive. The money given to theatre should reflect the amount it puts back into the economy. There should be more plays in the West End. It is a shame there are so few, but musicals are the money spinners, it’s really tough for plays. Live performance of any kind is incredibly important so we have to keep subsidising theatre.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love India, I go there a lot. I’ve been all over from north to south, the lot. I keep going back because I love the people.
When I was a teenager, Wuthering Heights (by Emily Brontë) was my favourite book, so I feel a bit disloyal to Charlotte saying that! I read a lot. I remember loving Crime and Punishment, which I read not too long ago. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was also wonderful - coming back to India again!
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Tristan and Yseult by Kneehigh at the National, that was wonderful. And A Raisin in the Sun - oh yes, that’s by a female writer, Lorraine Hansberry! I absolutely adore that play. It is really moving and an incredible piece of writing about racism and a woman’s world. I also loved Death of a Salesman.
What made you want to accept the role of Charlotte Brontë in Brontë?
Really, I love the script, I thought it was very moving. As a woman in this game, you read so many clichéd scripts and - particularly for film and TV - you get very black and white views of what women should be like, whereas Charlotte’s a very complicated character. And the play made me cry three times.
Have you read Jane Eyre or any of the other Brontë books?
I have read most of them, including Jane Eyre. I haven’t read Anne’s books yet, but I’ve bought them, so I will!
What are the main challenges of being on tour?
It’s fun being on the road. I know England better than a lot of people who are English. It’s hard being away from friends and family, but I love the idea of exploring new places.
Is it more difficult to portray a real person than a fictional one?
It is more difficult. You do so much research because it’s there to be done. I’d already read most of the Brontë books, as I said, but when I got the role, I went to the British Library and read all of Charlotte’s letters and all the biographies I could find about her, too. You can’t not do your research thoroughly when you’re playing a real person. When you’re constructing a life in two-and-a-half hours – and you’re only on stage for some of that time – it’s very difficult to portray the whole person, of course. Also, there’s the pressure of knowing that so many people are such big Brontë fans. It can be hard because you’ve also got to serve the drama of the piece. That might go against what you’ve learned about the historical figure, but it’s right for the character as drawn in the play. So yes, it is definitely more challenging – but then that’s what makes it more fun!
This is your second Shared Experience production. What, if anything, is so special about the company?
I love the process, your warm-ups and all of that, and the way you work at Shared Experience. We spent a couple of days being dogs! If you liked drama school, then you’re going to like working with Shared Experience. They encourage you to explore your whole physical self and that of the character, even if you’re playing a character who doesn’t use her whole physical self. It’s a very united company. And it genuinely is a shared experience because you can put in your two penny’s worth and they listen and take notice of your views.
What’s your favourite line from Brontë?
I had one, and then the other day I had another, but now I can’t remember the second one. Anyway, I think my favourite is when Charlotte says, “How dare you humiliate me because I’ve had no life.” It sums up who she is. She’s humiliated by Branwell, and she hasn’t done what she wanted to do in life, and it’s utterly unfair.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Charlotte Brontë, so then she could tell me how to do this part.
What are your future plans?
It’s a joy to not be doing something in an RP accent, it’s like heaven on earth for me! It seems you do one posh role and then you end up playing posh a million times. I’d like to do some comedy after this, as this is quite serious. I got to do a bit for Woody Allen, but it wasn’t comic - I had the only unfunny bit in a comic film, which was very unfortunate!
- Fenella Woolgar was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Brontë opened in Guildford on 25 August 2005 and has been touring since. It’s now playing at west London’s Lyric Hammersmith until 26 November 2005, and then transfers to Salford, where the tour concludes on 3 December 2005.