Zoë Wanamaker: “The industry is going to change at last”

Britannia star Zoë Wanamaker on the bullies in the acting industry, being a middle class liberal – and 'lacking bravery' in her own career

When I was 16 I was taken away from school because I was in a relationship with a boy. My parents thought I was being distracted! Then I went to a Quaker boarding school, which was an experience as well. I planned to stay with the boy, but then I found out he had been fucking other girls.

My dad was blacklisted by McCarthy, and that’s why I’m here. He came to the UK just before he was subpoenaed to go before the committee. I was only three but already knew we were different. Dad was the first method actor to come to this country. I did feel in his shadow, and my mum was an actress as well, so I was concerned I would be judged and compared. I was self-conscious about that.

My dad was blacklisted by McCarthy, and that’s why I’m here

My parents really didn’t want me to be an actress. But my dad was acting at Stratford when I was 10 and it was very beautiful and idyllic. He was acting with Paul Robeson, which was quite a hook, and I was able to go backstage. So I was very privileged. They thought it was going to be difficult, especially being a girl in the business we’re in, which is all about what you look like. They were worried about rejection and disappointment.

After the blacklisting was over, Dad would come back from America with colourful clothes for us. So I would go to school in something completely different. And I mainly used to wear a black PVC oilskin that was cool at that time. There wasn’t much colour in the Fifties and early Sixties. Then it exploded.

Art school opened up a new social sphere for me. I went to Hornsey College of Art, for a pre-diploma year. Cream did a gig there, which was fantastic, and I met great people. I was outgoing, smoked Gitanes and had a fabulous time. I studied industrial art, fashion, advertising, and we had life drawing classes every week – but I found being an artist very solitary and wanted to be with other people.

The 1960s was an incredible time to be approaching adulthood – but a confusing time as well for a girl. Because the pill came in and then everything took off. Literally. But every generation has an explosion in it of some kind or other.

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I never knew I was dyslexic until quite recently. I’d always say I was a bit dyslexic as an excuse, but then I was asked to be part of a dyslexia campaign, so I had to get tested. It was so nice to have it confirmed – and a relief to realise it wasn’t stupidity.

I would tell my younger self to stop being obsessed by my weight. I used to think I was too fat. I would stop that. And I used to think I was ugly. So I would stop that as well. You are what you are. Enjoy it. That is so important. It crippled me for some time. I am acting in front of people and being judged by the way I fucking look? That is difficult. But I would say to my younger self, get over it!

Zoë Wanamaker and Adam Faith in Love Hurts
Zoë Wanamaker with Adam Faith in 1990s comedy drama Love Hurts

Self-belief has always been a hurdle for me. I so admire people who have it. I would tell my younger self to try to hold on to your self-belief, because that is a habit that one can get into. And it will make you braver.

My younger self would enjoy my career – but she might say it is not enough. She might say, ‘you weren’t brave enough’. And she would be right. I should have been braver. I could have experimented more in my work. I could have studied other aspects of the work I do. That would not be going to Hollywood, but maybe to New York to learn techniques my dad and mum used. I wasn’t brave enough.

My younger self would enjoy my career – but she might say it is not enough

The Olivier Awards are fun and many roles I feel were good work, but usually the last one is the one I like most. We are constantly learning. I never stop being surprised by something I’ve not learned. But I’m proud of my long-running series – working with Adam Faith on Love Hurts [above] was fantastic, I didn’t think it was going to be any good. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve got away with it all this time.

I am so proud of The Globe Theatre. My dad struggled for 27 years to make it happen. I love that a theatre there is now called The Sam Wanamaker, which he would have hated. But he is dead. And I am glad his name is no longer just in the ether. It’s a celebration of his life and his commitment and my mum’s too. When he was starting his struggle, I was leaving drama school. People were saying, ‘your father is going to build Disneyland’, just because he was American. When daddy was dying, we came to an understanding. He said, ‘you don’t want to take The Globe over, you don’t want to be a producer, you don’t want to be a director’. He was right. I just wanted to be a performer.

I said the first words from the stage at The Globe’s opening in front of the Queen – I thought I was going to have a heart attack. There is such a joy in the place. And exactly what my father said was going to happen. The Tate Modern was announced just before he died. And he was so thrilled because he knew his idea that the South Bank would be like the Seine, with the arts everywhere, was coming true.

I am a fucking middle class liberal. I grew up in a political household. We were left wing – my sister became a Trotskyite at one point – but I think politics has got weirder. Trump doesn’t even think there is global warming. It’s a mess. It’s a worry if people don’t see the disasters that are coming. My politics are that we should all respect humanity.

Zoë Wanamaker as a baby with her father actor and director Sam Wanamaker and mother Charlotte Holland
Zoë Wanamaker as a baby with her father actor and director Sam Wanamaker and mother Charlotte Holland

I have discovered through my relationships that there is no such thing as perfection. I now know you have to enjoy the imperfections of another person. That is what I would tell my younger self. I think it is about self-confidence again. The relationships I had were not necessarily about being in love.

The acting industry is going to change course now at last. It has been a long evolution through the intimidation and going against people trying to keep someone in their place, which is what all bullies try to do. I just wish the pay was equal. There have been jobs I was reluctant to do because of it. When I left drama school in the 1970s we were campaigning for equal pay. And we are still campaigning.

There have been jobs I was reluctant to do because of the unequal pay

Older women are more prevalent than ever on screen. And not being old ladies all the time! What an entrance I make in Britannia – my first line is “I shit on the souls of your dead!” When I read that I just laughed: I will definitely do this one. There are so many more women writers these days. I have just done a series called Girlfriends for ITV with three women of a certain age. So there you go. It’s always exciting – bob and weave, bob and weave.

All episodes of Britannia will be available January 18 exclusively on Sky Atlantic and TV streaming service NOW TV. Girlfriends is on ITV, 9pm, Wednesdays