Juliet Stevenson: “I finally feel confident about myself”

Juliet Stevenson on why success was a surprise, 'playing the game' - and her life's best moment and big sadness

At 16 I really felt I was connecting to the world of ideas. It was around then English literature exploded in my head. I was listening to David Bowie and John Lennon, in the time of the four-day week, the Heath government, the huge polarising of the have and have-nots – I became quite politicised. I learned about social injustice, power, privilege, moral responsibilities. I was really on a journey of connecting to the world. I remember that time viscerally, I can go straight back. We never lose an age, we carry them all in us our whole lives.

It was at 16 I saw my first Shakespeare play. Five actors in T-shirts and jeans came to our school and did a cut-down version of King Lear. I walked into the school hall one person and walked out a changed person. I was just astonished and enraptured by the play and the language. And I identified very strongly with King Lear. I’ve always puzzled over why a 16-year-old girl should identify so much with King Lear but if you look at the play, he’s volatile, loses his temper, he has a strong sense of injustice as he discovers poverty, a world that is very unequal. And he is racked by guilt about his own privilege. All those qualities are very teenage really.

Looking back, I see myself as very gauche. I had two brothers but I’d been in boarding schools since I was nine due to my dad being in the army. So I was very socially unconfident about boys and all that. I was skinny, quite a late developer. I wasn’t very comfortable in my body. I had secret loves but not very inhabited love affairs. I’d tell that teenager not to worry – quite soon you’ll discover there’s a world out there where it’ll be okay to be yourself so just hang on in there. I’d also tell her, regarding her eyebrows – there is a point when you should stop plucking.

Juliet in Truly, Madly, Deeply with Alan Rickman.

I never thought I’d be a movie star. You have to feel confident about the way you look to feel that. So when I made Truly Madly Deeply I thought, God, how amazing, to be on a 30 foot-high screen. Making that film gave me enormous confidence. It validated what I hoped would be true; that the integrity of the work will get you there. There’s an awful lot of other stuff in our business – who you know, who you schmooze, how you look, all the social and sexual games I found confusing and didn’t want to do. But with Truly Madly Deeply I worked with this close group of friends – Alan Rickman, Anthony Minghella, Michael Maloney – and made a film with integrity. And it opened up a lot of career doors for me.

I’d like to tell my younger self, you’re going to be in a position to make a real difference one day. So much of my life has come as a surprise to me. Even when I was at drama school I didn’t think I’d be a successful actress. I assumed I would be one of the unsuccessful ones. In my 20s I thought I’d been so lucky with my career I’d have to pay the price for that by not finding a man I’d want to settle down with, and not having the children that I craved. So to have a partner whom I adore – we’ve been together for 23 years – with a bunch of children… Sometimes I feel, when the house is full of people and I’m cooking, God, isn’t this amazing!

I try not to do rubbish but you have to pay the mortgage. My teenage self would have been very judgemental.

I don’t think men have their trajectory interrupted very much, and women do. You have to work harder and harder against the sense that you’re losing value as you get older. You’re trying to protest against that value system, yet you also have to play the game a bit. I found turning 40 very difficult. I still struggle with being introduced as a ‘veteran’ actor, going to France and being a madame instead of a mademoiselle. I’d love to go back to my younger self and tell her it won’t keep getting harder. In fact it will become easier. I’m actually really enjoying my 50s, and I never thought I’d say that. I used to worry about what visual image I should project. Glamour was a long reach for me. Now I finally feel confident about myself – I can stand up and talk about what I believe in and be who I am and accept the fact I’m not going to please everyone.

My 16-year-old self would have disapproved of some of the work I’ve done. I try not to do rubbish but you have to pay the mortgage. And some years there just aren’t the scripts. Sometimes you do the big money projects to have the luxury of doing the interesting, challenging work at the Royal Court or the Old Vic for take-home pay of about £300 a week. I’m quite happy with that now – I’ve got children, I’m a breadwinner, I have to pay bills. But my teenage self would have been very judgemental.

An early headshot from Juliet Stevenson. Credit: BFI

I really loved my older brother, who died 15 years ago when I was expecting my youngest child. That’s 15 years of lost conversations. If I could go back in time, I’d love to claim those back. And my dad died when I was 35. That’s my big sadness, he never knew my children. He would have loved to see the fine young adults they’re growing in to. He was a great appreciator. And I look at my brother’s daughter, my much-loved niece, and her lovely four-year-old boy – he didn’t know him either – and I think he’d have taken such joy from him. But I talk to them both all the time in my head. My brother loved driving and whenever I’m going round in the car desperately looking for somewhere to park, and somebody pulls out to give me the perfect space in central London, I always say, ‘Thanks darling.’

If I could go back and have one more time in my life again, it would be about 16 years ago when we were all – my partner Hugh, and my son and daughter – in Australia. My daughter was six and my son was just born. I’d longed for a second child and I’d finally had him. I finished filming for the day and we all went for this amazing lunch. We were sitting on a tiny Chinese junk boat chugging out to the Great Barrier Reef, sun beating down, baby in a pouch on my chest, my six-year-old daughter swimming alongside the boat with porpoises next to her. And I thought, oh my God, it couldn’t get better than this. And I knew it at the time. I seized it. I sat on the deck of that boat with the sun and the sky and the sea, everyone in their element, and I thought, life couldn’t be more fully lived than it is at this moment.

Departure, starring Juliet Stevenson, is in cinemas