Jenny Agutter: "I didn’t grow up until my late thirties"
By the time I was 16 I was at ballet school and already making films. I’d just made Walkabout in Australia and was about to make The Railway Children. I didn’t think at all about the future. I knew I enjoyed acting but at 16 I had no life experience; the characters I was playing were really just who I was, a child. [Directors] Nic Roeg and Lionel Jeffries just used that extraordinarily well. They were very honest performances in that sense.
My parents were away in Cyprus while I was at boarding school. I didn’t see them very much. They weren’t particularly impressed or overawed by the whole film thing, they just let me get on. It’s a peculiar situation – who knows what it does to you. These are the people you love most, who are the closest people to you, but you hardly see them and when you do it takes a week for you all to get used to each other again.
If I could talk to that girl now I’d say don’t give up your education at 17. I think an education would have given me confidence, more choices and helped me focus my thoughts when I try to explain what I mean. It made me self-conscious in my twenties – I was thrown into work alongside people who were highly educated and I felt I didn’t know what they were talking about. Now I’d tell that younger me, people are very willing to tell you things; you can find out a lot if you just ask and listen. But I thought I’d look foolish if I asked questions.
With acting you never lose that sense of never quite knowing how much longer it can continue. At 14 I was told acting was all very well but it was likely to dry up soon. So I’ve never taken it too seriously. When I was 21 and working at the National Theatre, Peter Hall gave me very good advice – to go around the repertory theatres, do some Shakespeare, really work on my craft. I didn’t listen to him, of course. I went to make movies in LA.
I’d tell my younger self that she has a hell of a lot going for her at an unusually early age and she should make more of it. When I went to LA I did all those stupid photo shoots, sitting in a bathing costume with your hair down your back and lots of make-up on. Pretty vacuous stuff and it had nothing to do with getting good roles. I should have felt more confident about the weight of work I already had behind me and just said no.
The reason I married so late was that I didn’t really grow up until my late thirties. I think that was because of my crazy adolescence, spending time with all these grown-ups but being afraid of asking questions. They seemed to assume I had all this maturity, but emotionally I really wasn’t mature at all. I knew I couldn’t have children on my own. That would never have been my choice. I had my son when I was 37, when I was ready for all that, and I’m really glad I had a partner to see me through it all.
Here I am, about to turn 60, and I’ve never been busier. The success of Call the Midwife has been extraordinary and such a lovely surprise. I’ve been stopped in the street in a way I never have been before. But it is daunting, getting older. Men are still called attractive when they’re 80, but if you suggest a woman of that age is attractive people say, what do you mean by that? It’s always a surprise to me to see that I look older when I look in the mirror. And now I have contact lenses I can see all my wrinkles. But inside I still feel 35.
In 1968, the year Jenny turned 16... Martin Luther King is shot dead in Memphis... Enoch Powell gives his Rivers of Blood speech... 2001: A Space Odyssey premieres... Tommie Smith does a Black Power salute at the Olympics in Mexico City...
Jenny Agutter stars in the British comedy Outside Bet, out now on DVD
Do you miss the golden age of trains, as depicted in The Railway Children? For in-depth analysis on the past and present of Britain's railways, see this week's Big Issue, on sale until September 2