Age not haunt­ing En­field ac­tress

Juliet Steven­son talks to Matthew Stadlen about su­per­sti­tion, sex­ism and shoes – and why she con­sid­ered be­com­ing a mid­wife.

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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.

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