20 Questions with… RSC’s Charlotte Cornwell

Actress Charlotte Cornwell recently returned to the RSC for the first time in over 30 years and is currently playing the Countess in Nancy Meckler’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well

Alex Waldmann (Bertram) and Charlotte Cornwell (Countess) in All's Well That Ends Well
Alex Waldmann (Bertram) and Charlotte Cornwell (Countess) in All’s Well That Ends Well

Where did you grow up?
Wherever my father could ply his considerable skills as a ‘property developer’. The Home Counties provided him with highly rewarding ‘developmental opportunities’ until the bailiffs, or less savoury elements, signaled that it was time to move on.

Was your family theatrical?
No, I can only remember a few visits to the theatre, but home life made up for any lack of exposure to live drama.

What was your first job?
A sales assistant at ‘The Way In’ at Harrods when it opened, along with a number of friends. We were all sacked within a couple of months for ‘socialising’ and giving too much of the merchandise away to friends.

What made you want to be an actor?
I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about the way I fell into acting because almost everyone I know claims to always having wanted to do it from a frighteningly early age. I was completely directionless until my brother, David, sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a clue, but he wondered if something creative might be of interest, like, maybe, acting? The idea had never occurred to me but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I applied to the drama school nearest to where we lived, got in, and discovered a passion.

What else might you have done professionally?
I would love to have been an equestrian and was a fairly promising young rider, but family circumstances made it impossible to pursue that dream. I’d also like to have been a zoologist.

First big break?
The television series Rock Follies. It won the BAFTA for best drama series in 1976 and it gave me a profile, which is what a young actor really needs.

Career highlight to date?
An impossible question! I’ve had some wonderful roles and worked with so many fine actors, directors and writers. As a young actress with the RSC, playing Rosalind for Trevor Nunn left me wondering what could ever be better. The Road To Mecca at the National, written and directed by Athol Fugard, with Yvonne Bryceland and Bob Peck, comes pretty close. But every job is an adventure.

Favourite co-stars?

Well, of course, Johnny Slinger and Greg Hicks! But I recently worked with Jean Reno, and… well… um…

First thing on stage that had big impact?
Being taken to see West Side Story at Her Majesty’s Theatre when I was nine years old. I think that’s when I discovered sex!

Latest big impact?
Jonathon Pryce‘s Lear at the Almeida last year. He broke my heart.

How does it feel to be back at RSC?
It’s a privilege. And to work with such a talented and dedicated group of people is a pleasure. I’ve always enjoyed working in big companies – the sense of being part of a large creative team is exciting. Of course, it’s a very different experience from the one I had 32 years ago – a new environment, a whole new set of challenges.

Charlotte Cornwell as Gertrude
Charlotte Cornwell as Gertrude

Why do you think All’s Well is so rarely performed?
One of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays? A mind-set? Who knows? In fact, there’s something almost Chekhovian about the play in that the major events take place off stage and we are presented with the characters’ responses to those events. It’s fascinating.

How do you go about making the Countess your own?
How does an actor make any role their own? By bringing their imagination, life experience, and skill all together to tell the character’s story. I’ve been in love, I’m a mum, I often think about my own mortality these days, even while I feel there’s a lot more life for me to live – much llike the Countess’s journey through the play. She’s also very aware of the handing over of one generation to another, something we all have to face as we grow older. So, hopefully, I’ll find my way to her.

Has playing Gertrude (in the RSC’s recent Hamlet) influenced your portrayal of the Countess?
The differences between the two women, both in nature and circumstances, have been very useful. Gertrude is not comfortable in her own skin; she looks for validation through men and status. She makes one really bad decision to marry Claudius and sets herself a trap from which there’s no escape. She loses her child and pays the ultimate price. The Countess, on the other hand, is a woman who’s very comfortable with who and where she is in life. For her, it’s not who you are but how you treat others that matters – a philosophy I share. She’s Shakespeare’s true mother.

How do you unwind?
Walking my young lurcher, Luna, who’s a great comedienne and an even greater athlete. Otherwise, unwinding isn’t something I really do; there’s always something more to do in life, and so little time to do it!

Who would you swap places with for a day?
Usain Bolt.

Who’s your acting idol?
Vanessa Redgrave.

Favourite post show hang-out?
The sofa in my living room with a good glass of wine.

Favourite film?
Ken Loache’s Kes – a brilliant and tragic celebration of our need for communication, beauty, and freedom.

Future dream roles?
Whatever comes along – being an actor is a dream of a job.

All’s Well That Ends Well opens in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre tonight (25 July 2013), continuing until 26 September. It visits Newcastle’s Theatre Royal from 5 to 9 November.

See also: Our 20 Questions with Alex Waldmann