Harriet Walter: The arts have been keeping us going, mentally and spiritually
Dame Harriet Walter talks lockdown life, her star turn in Killing Eve, the future of theatre, and why the revival of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is perfect television for this once in a lifetime lockdown
Dame Harriet Walter stole every scene as Dasha in KillingEve – all velour tracksuits, elaborate murder techniques, barbed Russian sniping and baby bothering.
She just also led bleak Australian comedy The End as cantankerous Edie, raging against ageing and determined to exercise her right to die, following star turns in period dramas Belgravia, Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife and as Clementine Churchill in The Crown.
We also saw Walter playing Princess Margaret opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the rollicking adaptation of Patrick Melrose, play piano in brilliant Elton John biopic Rocketman and as a fleeting but memorable presence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And in Succession – one of the most talked-about shows of recent years – audiences are crying out for more of Walter’s emotionally manipulative, compellingly callous Caroline Collingwood, mother to Kendall, Shiv and Roman.
I’ve never been a specialist. I’ve always been a bit of a Jill of all trades
On stage, Walter starred in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female productions of Julius Caesar (as Brutus), Henry IV (title role) and The Tempest (as Prospero), in New York and London, culminating in exhausting, ecstatic ‘trilogy days’ with all three performed back-to-back in 2018, setting the works as plays within an overarching play in which the actors were inmates in a women’s prison and audiences ushered in by prison guards.
Walter’s work has been eye-catching and oh-so-varied. To every role she brings a fierce intelligence that marks her out as the best Doctor Who we’ve never (yet) had. But don’t try telling her she is having a moment.
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“I hope it is more than a moment,” she says, in mock horror. She’s right, of course. In more than 40 years since first joining the RSC, Walter has rarely been out of interesting work.
“I’ve never been a specialist. I’ve always been a bit of a Jill of all trades. It suits me to be doing period drama one minute, an Alan Bennett monologue the next and then playing a crazy Russian assassin.”
Oh yes, that Russian assassin. How about that scene where she dumped a baby in a Barcelona bin?
“Oh, the baby loved it,” says Walter, laughing. “That bin was cleaned up and comfy with lots of nice cushions. But it was a rather disastrous thing to do in public – I thought I’d be stoned.”
The 69-year-old is currently in lockdown with her actor husband Guy Paul, who made it from his native New York just before travel was restricted.
“I’m here with lots of parks and this great weather – but I’m so used to keeping my distance now, I don’t know how I will ever get close to anybody ever again,” she says. “It is amazing how quickly we caught new habits. I think we have been quite brilliant as a community.”
But like many of us, Walter has been feeling a bit lost. “On a personal level, I am having quite a relaxed time,” she says. “On a mental level, I am just shrieking at the awful things going on.”
Actors are used to having schedules mapped out. Then changed. And changed again. Trying to impose structure has been tough. As well as ongoing work with West London Welcome – a refugee centre for which she is a patron – Walter has used her skills for the common good, including reading a poem for one lucky winner of The Big Issue’s Big Raffle.
“If I feel fairly useless on a practical level, at least someone thinks I can help,” says Walter. “And if there’s a little acting task, great. There is nothing more frightening for an actor than being themselves.”
In a perfect piece of carry-on-through-Covid-19 commissioning, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, originally aired to loud acclaim and quiet awe in 1988, have been revived by the BBC.
The stories show isolation in action. Speakers ricochet from extreme self-analysis to utter self-deception and the cast reads like a greatest hits of TV drama: Jodie Comer, Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton. Walter takes a role first played by Stephanie Cole in ‘Soldiering On’ – a story of pride, loyalty and delusion.
Alan Bennett’s ear for the way people talk is a magical gift
“When I got the call, I thought, ‘Whoopee, I know about this!’” she says. “I can learn lines and rehearse a play. What could be better?
“When the originals came out nobody had seen anything like it. We are curious about one another and don’t dare ask questions. So if somebody opens up in front of you where you don’t have the embarrassment of being with them or responsibility for solving their problems, it is so compelling.
“Filming them is a tightrope walk. I know that sounds pretentious, because if you fall off a tightrope you die and if you get a line wrong you don’t. But you don’t want to be over-arch, like the actress knows how foolish her character is being and you can’t be so involved you don’t bring out the humour.
“My character reminds me of a generation I don’t know if people under 40 even recognise. But it is my mother, my godmother, my aunt – women who had been through the war and don’t indulge in any self-analysis. You don’t moan about your fate, you get on with it and take pride in being a good mother and wife.”
Walter’s character needed an austere haircut, rather than her lockdown locks, so her husband was coached by the hair and make-up team over Zoom. “We were all very impressed,” she laughs. “He did a terribly good job.”
Walter has still only met Bennett once, in 1991, when both were filming episodes of Ashenden in Budapest. She remains full of admiration.
“His ear for the way people talk is a magical gift,” she says. “He sent us lovely thank you cards with little sketches of him on them, which I shall treasure.”
When I was Jodie Comer’s age I was going around in a van doing agitprop
Before lockdown, Walter was filming The Last Duel, alongside Comer (again), Matt Damon and Adam Driver.
“I can’t get rid of Jodie Comer,” she jokes. “But maybe we’ll all have a terrible clash when everything restarts. There’ll be a bottleneck. That’s going to happen with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and also actors.”
Reflecting on her recent credits, Walter takes pleasure, she says, in seeing a thrilling new generation of young women up close. She talks of Comer, Black Earth Rising co-star Michaela Coel and Shakespeareans Jade Anouka – a poet and writer, and Clare Dunne, who finished her script for upcoming film Herself while living with Walter during the trilogy.
“I’ve been so impressed at young women who haven’t necessarily trained in the conventional way but that talent will out,” she says.
“When I was Jodie Comer’s age I was going around in a van, doing one-night stands as a piece of agitprop. I see her at the Golden Globes and think, how could I have dealt with that at 27?
“I was a late developer. I would not have been ready for any of that. And writing your own material is a big deal. It’s all very well people saying ‘if you don’t like what you’re offered, write your own stuff’. Yeah, have you ever tried writing a play?”
The theatre is like an amoeba. It reshapes itself and tends to survive
We are back to theatre, Walter’s first love. Unlike many, she claims not to be overly worried about its future.
“I’ve got great faith,” she says. “The theatre is like an amoeba. It reshapes itself and tends to survive. So I’m not worried it’s going to die.
“But just as I hope no one will get away with undernourishing the NHS again, I also hope somebody somewhere will understand that the arts have also been keeping us going, mentally and spiritually. That is what people have been engaging with. They’ve needed that connection, that communication and that inventiveness.”
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