Age not haunting Enfield actress
Juliet Stevenson talks to Matthew Stadlen about superstition, sexism and shoes – and why she considered becoming a midwife.
Until recently, Juliet Stevenson was so fed up with the paucity of material for actresses of her age that she considered retraining as a nurse or midwife.
‘‘I don’t want to feel that what I do is a luxury. What I do has got to be needed. It’s not altruism, it’s completely self-driven,’’ she says firmly.
Now, however, she is back in love with her craft. ‘‘This last couple of years there have been some really wonderful work opportunities that have revived my passion.’’
Stevenson is just six months shy of her 60 birthday but age doesn’t trouble her. ‘‘People say your 50s is a great decade and I thought, ‘What?!’ And it so is. I had to wrangle with so many fears, self-doubt, self-criticism and lack of confidence [before]. I care much less now when people are critical. I’m not as paranoid, not as neurotic as I used to be.’’
Blonde hair swept across her forehead, there’s great warmth in her smile. The jacket and white blouse are smart, but the Converse trainers she wears belong to her 15-year-old son, the younger of the two children she has with her anthropologist husband (she also has two stepsons).
For many people, Stevenson will always be Nina, the slightly kookie, grief-stricken character she played in the 1990 film Truly, Madly Deeply. But she was already an acclaimed stage actress. Films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Emma and Mona Lisa Smile and TV work including The Politician’s Wife and Accused have brought her to an even wider audience.
We meet in a cafe near her London home to talk about The Enfield Haunting, a three-part ghost story based on real events in 1977. She plays the wife of her RADA contemporary Timothy Spall. There is a ‘‘sort of intimacy for free’’ from working with someone so familiar, she laughs.
The Enfield Haunting is set in north London and revolves around a home apparently possessed by a poltergeist. It made headlines nationally at the time. ‘‘People who went along to discredit it, had these extraordinary experiences that they could not explain,’’ she says.
Spall plays a paranormal investigator and the drama is as much about the emotional lives of the protagonists, as it is about ghosts. She and Spall have just lost their daughter in a motorbike accident and he becomes increasingly involved with the family living in the haunted house. ‘‘Perhaps it’s about why, in emotional and psychological extremity, we are drawn to the paranormal or the psychic to seek relief or solace in some way,’’ she says.
Stevenson is a sceptic, but believes we have much to learn about ‘‘different kinds of human energy’’.
‘‘I am very superstitious, which is bizarre in somebody who doesn’t believe in religion,’’ she admits. ‘‘You have to acknowledge there are forces you don’t understand that influence you and I don’t mean that in a ‘woo woo’ sense. I think we will understand [in the future] that thought is transferable, or something, in a completely scientific way. The things we now consider to be weird or paranormal will become scientific fact.’’
While she relished her latest role, exploring how a woman copes ‘‘when her husband has turned his back on her and is giving all his energy to another family she hasn’t even met’’, the part is still playing ‘‘somebody’s wife’’. Concern about gender inequality in middle age is a subject that preoccupies her. Her role as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, for which she recently won stellar reviews, found her at the heart of the narrative as the 50-something ‘‘eternal optimist’’ – in Beckett’s words – buried (eventually) up to her neck, who ekes out her life between ‘‘the bell for waking and the bell for sleep’’.
She describes it as a ‘‘phenomenal career high’’. Women would thank her for telling their story, she says, which confirms her view that female theatre and cinema-goers are being cheated by the lack of parts reflecting their experiences.
‘‘You’ve learnt such a lot when you get to your middle years, and yet there’s so little to pass it into in the roles that are written [for women], whereas the men have huge scope. Fifty per cent of audiences are women, but that’s not reflected on screen and stage.’’
Even Shakespeare was ‘‘awful’’ on women between 35 and 65, she adds. ‘‘What am I going to play? Gertrude’s supposed to be a great part – Gertrude? In Hamlet? Thanks, but no thanks.’’
Stevenson was born in Essex, but her early childhood was spent overseas because of her father’s military career.
‘‘I think memory kicked in in Australia. Suddenly my life went from black-and-white to colour because we lived in a village and the garden was full of brilliant coloured flowers. The sea was blue and the sky was massive and it was hot. It was so sensual – you can imagine the heat and smells. There’d be a whale washed up on the beach one day. Huge visceral sort of landscape on which to be three, four and five.’’
A posting in Germany was not so blissful and, aged nine, Stevenson asked to be educated in England with her two older brothers.
It was at an independent school in Surrey that her interest in drama was sparked. Accepted at Bristol to read English and Drama, she had a sudden change of heart.
‘‘I woke up one morning in that way you can when you’re young and I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. What am I doing? Why would I read drama as an academic subject? I don’t want to write essays about Ibsen. I don’t want to write essays about Strindberg and end up teaching it aged 24. Oh my God! What’s happened here?’’’ RADA followed.
In performance, Stevenson draws on what she calls the savings account of her experiences. ‘‘Sometimes the happier I am in my life, the harder I think it is to act properly. But somehow you get up there and you go into that world and this stuff just comes up.’’
Everything that’s ever happened to her is fair game if it’s needed to tell a story: ‘‘whatever it is, however embarrassing, extreme, mundane, shaming, revealing, vulnerable, crackers’’.
She has, she accepts, a ‘‘quite volatile’’ internal life. ‘‘I blow hot quickly, I cool down quickly. I’m quite a trial to myself. I’m quite neurotic.’’
Though passionate about acting, she isn’t a fan of big industry gatherings.
‘‘To walk up the red carpet is agonisingly difficult because it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the reasons I became an actress. Nothing to do with wearing high heels and looking great and managing to maintain your figure aged 50-something and having your hair blow-dried.
‘‘It’s taken me decades to understand that all that stuff matters. I love clothes – don’t get me wrong – I adore shoes.
Nothing I love more than clothes shopping with my [20-year-old] daughter. But that thing of being assessed by your outward appearance is my idea of pretty much hell. I’ve never had huge confidence in that at all. If I thought that was something to do with being an actress, I wouldn’t have been an actress.’’
But she is and has no plans to stop. Her next film project, Departure, is being released in the UK later this month, and work is piling up after that. The nursing or midwifery profession’s loss is our gain. Coffee and cake finished, she’s off to her next appointment.
‘‘Fifty per cent of audiences are women, but that’s not reflected on screen and stage.’’ Juliet Stevenson, Actress
Juliet Stevenson stars alongside Timothy Spall in The Enfield Haunting.