Social Justice

Zoë Wanamaker on Donald Trump, 'right-wing a**holes' and why we all should be kinder to one another

The Big Issue speaks to legend of the stage and screen Zoë Wanamaker about her struggles with her mental health, her fear of technology and her childhood dream of becoming a nun

zoe wanamaker

The 75-year-old actor is collaborating with charity Causeway to call for an end to cycles of poverty, criminality and trauma. Image: Supplied

Zoë Wanamaker is exasperated with politics. “Where do we get these people? Where do we get these politicians?” she exclaims. I had asked the actor, an icon of theatre, television and film, for thoughts on the general election. But true to her American roots, she also has Donald Trump on her mind.

“The fact that America now will probably have Trump as a president, who is basically a television star and a bully… Language has disintegrated completely. Mental health is probably struggling because of it. Trump used phrases like ‘lock her up’ about Hilary Clinton. The licence to treat other people badly has spread so much.”

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Wanamaker was born in New York but her family fled to the UK when she was three. Her father Sam Wanamaker (who rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe) was blacklisted in Hollywood because of his communist views, and she’s spent much of her career in Britain.

She is best known for her roles in the BBC sitcom My Family and as Madam Hooch in Harry Potter, and is a legend of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.

I called Wanamaker’s landline – a self-confessed “technophobe”, the 75-year-old detests video calls – and we couldn’t meet in person as she doesn’t always know where she is going to be. Even over the phone, her cackle is one of the most distinctive I have heard. And she makes me laugh too. 

Our conversation is about her work with charity Causeway, which is calling for an end to cycles of poverty, criminality and trauma – the Big Issue has covered their work before. Yet she also talks about AI, the war in Gaza, the Post Office scandal, recycling and her childhood dream of becoming a nun, all largely unprompted.

It’s as though Wanamaker has swallowed cultural conversations and her thoughts tumble out, but they essentially all come back to one point: we need to be kinder to one another.

“Our society should be helping each other,” she tells me. “It’s wonderful to see so many different races and tribes and that is great. But then we can’t put walls up again. That is what is happening all over the world. It’s those right-wing assholes.”

“I’m thinking of refugees coming in boats and being drowned,” she adds. “They’re running from horror and they’ve come to this country and we give them horror. We put them in another boat. I don’t get it. The feeling of resentment that it brings to the country is really hard to take.”

Wanamaker’s parents came through the war and had to flee their home too. Her grandparents were émigré Russian Jews. “History keeps repeating itself,” she says. “Suddenly there’s now huge divisions, again. Again and again. I don’t understand it. People killing each other. For what? It’s greed. It’s greed and power.”

Wanamaker describes herself as Jew–ish. “We were never brought up with religion, because my parents thought it was the cause of war,” she recalls.

“I decided at one point I was going to be a nun. My mum and dad used to rent out a place in the country and there was a little local church. I decided that’s what I was going to be. It was all costumes for me really. It was theatre.”

Her dad took her to synagogue when she was a child – but as men and women were separated, he put fag ash on her face and put his hat on her and she sat with the men. 

“He just wanted me to see what other religions were like and he wanted me to learn from it,” she says. “I was lucky with my parents. They had an insatiable thirst for the arts.”

Wanamaker realises others are not so lucky. Causeway recently produced an animated video voiced by Wanamaker for its ‘Breaking Cycles: Building Lives’ campaign. The charity found that 80% of the UK prison population has experienced at least one adverse childhood experience.

Has Wanamaker’s childhood affected the course of her life? “Of course,” she says. “Everybody’s childhood is different. Some people survive it and some people don’t. But then there comes a point when you have to stop blaming your parents. It’s your turn now. 

“Particularly when my parents died, one after the other, you realise it’s your turn now to take over. You can change your attitude, but that takes a lot of energy, self-reflection and also help. You can’t do things on your own sometimes. That is a strength that I don’t personally have.”

Wanamaker has needed help to break out of cycles of depression. “A long time ago, I had a wonderful shrink, who said to me: ‘It’s a habit. You get depressed because it is a safe place to be. It takes an incredible amount of energy and willpower to change your direction.’” 

Her mother introduced Wanamaker to the psychotherapist. She was at art school at the time and struggling deeply – although she enjoyed art, she found it solitary. I ask what her mother saw in her. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “I think somebody who was depressed or at sea.”

“You go into that safe space where you’re very depressed. Why are you depressed? I don’t know why. I’m sad. I’m sick. I’m ugly. Or even, why do I keep doing this repetitive behaviour when I can actually stop myself? It’s hard to do. You have to recognise it and embrace it. It’s a human struggle.”

I ask Wanamaker how she is now. “Oh, I’m OK. I’m great. I mean, not great. But I’m fine. I’ve got a friend who says: ‘Are you Zoë fine, or are you really fine?’ I’m fine.” It is “very easy” to slip back into depression, but she knows when it is happening so she tries to stop it. 

“I go back into habits, getting down, miserable, self-deprecating too much, thinking that I can’t do things. But you have to fight. That’s the hardest bit. It’s like crawling out of a hole.”

Wanamaker tried a few different paths before she became an actor. She was not academic growing up – she only discovered she had dyslexia in 2004 – and she had a naughty streak. She was nicknamed ‘Wanna make some trouble.’

There was the arts school and secretarial work. “That was a joke,” she laughs. “I went to secretarial school, which was something called speed writing, which is supposed to get you a good job in three months. It took me six months and I cheated on my typing test.

“The first job I got was correcting computers’ mistakes. Now that’s funny. Computers are fed by people and they make mistakes. We saw that with the post office. That’s why I’m thinking AI is going to be a complete fuckup.”

Wanamaker brings up her fear of AI multiple times. “Who’s going to feed AI?” she asks. “Without humour, irony, without literature, language and humour…

Wanamaker as Susan Harper with screen hubby Ben (Robert Lindsay) in My Family
Zoë Wanamaker as Susan Harper with screen hubby Ben (Robert Lindsay) in My Family. Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

“Language can bring freedom. And I hate to say this, but Shakespeare is right next to God or is God because he was able to understand the human condition so deeply. And that’s going to go. Recorder lessons are going to disappear. These things are so important to the brain and to keep it bubbling.”

Even the internet is too much for Wanamaker. She has to ask her grandchildren for help. She thought it was a miracle when her youngest child, aged three, got up to put the television on by himself. 

“Everything’s changed again,” she says. “Everything’s changed with the computer systems and the phones. That’s the most extraordinary explosion of energy we’ve had. I got my first phone, a brick, in the 90s. David Bowie said this is not a good thing. And it has changed the world. The weird thing is that it’s made us insular.”

But sometimes change is good. Wanamaker believes in a world that can change for the better. “Most of us have this fantasy of a multicoloured, multi-diverse universe. We need to respect each other and enjoy it. That’s the key to humanity. We have to think again. I just hope that people find a belief in themselves that makes them happy.”

I ask Wanamaker if she has that belief in herself now after such an incredible career. “I don’t have that belief in myself, but I enjoy the world. I enjoy nature and I enjoy humanity,” she admits.

Wanamaker says that no one is hailing down her doors offering work but she is open to the right opportunities. “You’re only as good as your last job,” she says. “I feel lucky to be employed.”

Part of a generation of female actors who fought for change and better pay, she left the Harry Potter franchise because her pay was too low and she had to fight for equal pay with her co-star Robert Lindsay on My Family.

What would she say to encourage young people to fight for their rights? “Have pride in your work. Have pride in what you do or what you would like to do. And do it well.”

I tell Wanamaker she has been so generous with her time, before asking if she has any final thoughts. “Let me see…” she hesitates before exclaiming: “Where does all the recycling go?” 

Another of her characteristic cackles follows. It’s one of the few moments I am pleased we did this interview over the phone because she cannot see me giggling. I don’t have an answer for Wanamaker and we agree that neither of us knows where the recycling goes. I search Google later but Wanamaker’s deep dislike of the internet means she’s probably still in the dark.

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