20 Questions With … Catherine McCormack

Catherine McCormack makes her RSC debut in Helen Edmundson’s new play The Heresy of Love, which opens in the Swan Theatre tonight (8 February 2012, previews from 2 February).
McCormack’s film credits include the lead in Anna Campion’s Loaded, Braveheart, Spy Game and Dangerous Beauty.

Among her recent stage credits are The 39 Steps, A Doll’s House directed by Peter Hall at the Theatre Royal Bath and the UK tour of Headlong’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

In The Heresy of Love she plays the central role of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the writer of The House a Desires, a play which was performed as part of the RSC’s Spanish Golden Age season in 2004.

Date and place of birth
3 April 1972, Epsom

Lives now in

What made you want to become an actress?
My dad took me to see all the productions at the Farnham Redgrave Theatre when I was a young girl. I don’t remember one particular play that inspired me. I think I was affected by them all. The atmosphere, the actors, the stories.

If you hadn’t become an actress, what might you have done professionally?
I really don’t know. I spent my youth and all my 20s only wanting to be an actor, so I didn’t give a thought to anything else. Now, however, there are many things I would like to do. The top of that list is going back to study more. I have directed a couple of short films and have always loved watching film, so maybe I would have been a film director in a different life or own a small cinema somewhere where I could programme my own seasons. Yes that sounds nice.

First big break?

Career highlights to date?
I really have loved working on almost every job I have done for different reasons but I’m most proud of being a part of All My Sons by Arthur Miller, and Honour by Joanna Murray Smith, at the National Theatre. I also loved working on Sam Shepard’s Lie of the Mind. Such a strange, haunting, beautiful piece of writing.

Who have been your favourite co-stars?
I have collected great friends from various jobs over the years. All those friends would be my fav co-stars.

And favourite playwrights?
Ibsen, Pinter, David Greig.

Well, the two productions I mentioned above were directed by Howard Davies and Roger Michell, so I think they’re pretty bloody good.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I was about 18 when I saw Glenda Jackson in Brecht’s Mother Courage at the Mermaid Theatre. She was astonishing. I still remember the silent scream moment after she learns of her son’s death. When you experience one of those rare moments in the theatre it stays with you forever.

And the last?
Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. An amazing play with an astonishing central performance. I saw it three times and could see it 20 more.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?
To pursue what you love and don’t let anyone put you off. If you never explore what you have a great passion for, it will stay with you in some way and gnaw away at you. That’s been my experience anyway.

What’s your favourite book?
Hard to choose just one but Therese Raquin by Emile Zola has always been a favourite.

Favourite holiday destination?
Ravello on the Amalfi coast in Italy.

Why did you want to get involved with this production?
I have always admired Nancy Meckler through her Shared Experience Theatre work, so the opportunity to work with her was one reason, but also the play by Helen Edmundson. As soon as I’d reached the last page I had the phone in my hand dialling my agent’s number. Helen’s writing has such a strong poetic and visceral core, it knocks your socks off. I’d like to add her to my earlier favourite writers list!

What’s The Heresy of Love about?
A true story set in the 17th century in New Spain (Mexico today), based on the latter part of Sor Juana’s life, a Mexican nun, who defended her right as a woman to be allowed an intellectual life alongside men, against the might of the Catholic Church who were determined to silence her.

Tell us about your character
Sor Juana was a prodigy. A self taught scholar and poet. She could read and write by the age of three. She had mastered Latin by the age of 13. At the age of 16 she had entered the viceregal court in Mexico City as the Vicereine’s chief lady in waiting. There she was hailed as an exceptional intellect, having been tested by a panel of various theologians, jurists, philosophers and poets on a wide range of scientific and literary subjects. She entered the Convent of San Jeronimo when she was 18 and whilst there she spent much of her time devoted to intellectual study and writing plays and poems.

She had a voracious appetite for knowledge and the Convent was one of the few places that allowed her this privilege to study and write. The other options for women at that time were limited to the roles of wife and mother. She did however have a strong faith and so was drawn to the Convent life. One of the most notable of Sor Juana’s works still around today is the Reply to Sister Filotea, which defended woman’s right to an education. She clashed with the Church, in particular an Archbishop at the time who condemned her writing, and threatened her with the Inquisition. For some reason, she ceased writing and agreed to undergo penance, though no one is quite sure why she actually did this. She died of the plague whilst ministering to her fellow sisters. It is clear from her writings that she was a deeply passionate woman who had a vast thirst for knowledge and a profound sense of the injustice of the inequality that was rife in the male dominated world around her. A world that told her to keep quiet and keep her head down.

What’s your favourite line in the show?
“I will not renounce my mind.”

What do you make of the new-look RSC?
I love the look of it from the outside. I’m afraid I have been so busy rehearsing I have not been inside it yet, but intend to see Measure for Measure and Written on the Heart in the next couple of weeks, so will see it then.

What have you got lined up next?
Not sure yet. I rarely know what I’m going on to next. I’ve got used to that though over the years.

The Heresy of Love continues in the Swan Theatre until 9 March 2012.