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Marcia Gay Harden: 'I wouldn't do a stage version of Fifty Shades'

The American stage and screen actress on making her UK debut in Sweet Bird of Youth, working with James Gandolfini and starring in the film Fifty Shades of Grey

Marcia Gay Harden in rehearsal for Sweet Bird of Youth
© Johan Persson

It's taken a while to make my UK theatre debut here because I'm a mum with three kids. I'm always juggling school and life. It worked out this time that they could be without me for a little bit. They are coming over to visit too, so it has all worked out. And I realised that director Jonathan [Kent] and I were on the same page in that we both wanted the role to be raw, we wanted it to be real and without vanity. And truly it is without vanity.

When I read Sweet Bird of Youth , I thought: "who the f**k wrote this role for me?!" Tennessee Williams is so challenging and he has written a great female character. He was writing about the monster in all of us: the monster of ambition and the sadness of – it's much more than old age, wrinkles and thinning hair – it's loss.

In the play, my character Alexandra has been on a month-long bender. She is a fading film star holed up in a hotel in the middle of Louisiana with a hustler called Chance. He's returned to his home town to woo his only love – she's called Heavenly – back into his life, but he had infected her with a disease because of his sexual escapades. He's hustled Alexandra to give him a studio contract and he's also back to confront the group of men who have threatened him. The underbelly in the piece is the racism, which is in the background of the story of these two incredibly lost, seemingly superficial people, Alexander and Chance who are worried about their movie contracts.

Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith in rehearsal for Sweet Bird of Youth
© Johan Persson

Angels in America is on in London at the moment and I am desperate to see it. I made my Broadway debut as Harper Pitt in 1993, but I can't get a ticket to see it here. That's the thing with theatre these days – it's so hard to get a ticket!

I fell in love with theatre after living in Greece. My family were a military family and so we moved around a lot, but it was my older sister who was the one who put on plays. It was really only when I was studying theatre, Greek history and language in Greece, when I went to the foot of the Parthenon and saw the Herodes Atticus theatre that I really connected with the scope of theatre. The size of it. I think it's one of the things I love about Tennessee Williams – his plays do feel Greek at times. It's been a long journey – waiting a lot of tables along the way – to get from there to here.

I don't think I would ever do a stage version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Mainly because the part of Grace Grey [Christian Grey's mother] who I play, just isn't good enough. The whole point of being onstage is to exercise your acting ability. If it had been a great part, anything could be considered.

James Gandolfini was the most generous person to work with. I worked with him on God of Carnage on Broadway in 2003 and the four of us – Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, me and James - were like the four suits to a card deck. We made each other complete. There was equality across all of the show. He was the most generous soul, I cannot tell you how much I miss him.

Sweet Bird of Youth opens at Chichester Festival Theatre on 9 June and runs until 24 June, with previews from now.