Alongside her stage and screen career, Amanda Root set up a charity to help those in need through creative arts. Now appearing in The Chalk Garden, she tells Nick Smurthwaite why the lure of the stage remains irresistible
Wide-eyed and bursting with missionary zeal, Amanda Root belies her porcelain looks with a steely focus. In the past she has played both Juliet (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis as Romeo) and Lady Macbeth, and you’d hazard a guess that the real Root has a touch of both.
She is about to appear in The Chalk Garden, the classic 1955 Enid Bagnold play being revived at Chichester, about three women locked in a fascinating battle of wits and wills. Her character, Miss Madrigal, arrives at a beautiful Sussex manor house to take up the position of tutor and governess to Laurel, the troubled granddaughter of Mrs St Maugham, an eccentric, haughty matriarch, played here by Penelope Keith. What her employer doesn’t know is that Madrigal has been incarcerated in prison for an unspecified crime for the past 15 years.
Madrigal is passionate about plants and sees it as her mission to transform Mrs St Maugham’s infertile, chalk-based soil into something more productive and bountiful.
“Gardening is Miss Madrigal’s redemption and renewal,” says Root. “I played the granddaughter when I was a drama student and I don’t think I realised at the time how profound and timeless it is. Because of its upper-middle-class setting and surface gentility, we mustn’t forget that Madrigal represents something very different. She has come straight from a long prison sentence into this polite, well-ordered society, so it is inevitable she will have an impact on those around her.”
Root is well known for her prodigious TV work over three decades, dating back to 1987, when she played the lead in a BBC adaptation of JM Barrie’s ghost story, Mary Rose. There followed intelligent and touching performances in, among others, Love on a Branch Line (1994), Mortimer’s Law (1998), Daniel Deronda (2002) and the 2002 ITV remake of The Forsyte Saga, in which she played the long-suffering Winifred Dartie.
She made an unforgettable film debut as Jane Austen’s main protagonist Anne Elliot in the 1995 BBC film of Persuasion, opposite Ciaran Hinds. And, last year, Root bulked up to play the mature Queen Victoria in Kavi Raz’s film The Black Prince, the true story of the Queen’s relationship with the last king of Punjab, Maharaja Duleep Singh.
I’m always fascinated by characters who are constricted in some way by their circumstances or their psychology
“I love doing period drama because you’re not only corseted in reality but also metaphorically,” she says. “I’m always fascinated by characters who are constricted in some way by their circumstances or their psychology. I’m a great researcher, so I read up as much as I could about Queen Victoria, and the same goes for The Chalk Garden. I’m reading Bad Girls by Caitlin Davies to help me understand Miss Madrigal.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Clapham rehearsal rooms, where our interview takes place, is a venue that brings back 30-year-old memories for Root. “Joining the RSC’s touring company was my second job after leaving drama school. I had a great start as an actor, working with people such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Roger Allam, Sheila Hancock, Simon Russell Beale and Kenneth Branagh. I’d never been to Stratford in my youth [she grew up in Colchester] so there was a kind of youthful innocence. I wasn’t intimidated by the thought of all the people who’d played Juliet or Hermia before me because I’d never seen them. I suppose I had the boldness of youth. It all seemed such a fantastic adventure.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Assistant in my father’s sweet shop in Colchester.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Essie in The Devil’s Disciple at Leeds Playhouse in 1982.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To hold it more lightly.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be friendly, likeable and make an effort to project your personality. Be the person who is going to be fun to work with.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
A portrait sculptor.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I worked with Tamsin Greig on a show called Jumpy and she introduced this thing of playing games just before curtain up. It relaxed everyone and got us laughing. The theatre is all about making relationships and that set us up for what was to follow.
Root trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. “Moving to London from Colchester and learning how to look after myself was the most challenging thing about that period in my life,” she says. “The course was tough, but I enjoyed working alongside other people who wanted to act and I thrived on being challenged beyond my capabilities. Looking back, Webber Douglas gave me a very realistic idea of what the business was like.”
For the past eight years, Root’s loyalty has been torn between her first love – acting – and the creative arts charity Talitha, which she established to encourage actors, dancers and musicians to harness their skills for the benefit of those in need, especially the young female victims of trafficking and abuse.
She explains the thinking behind Talitha. “When I was a child, I saw a TV programme about using drama to help young people with problems and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to do something like that one day.’ I did a pilot workshop with some other actors and dancers for people with learning difficulties in 2003.
“What really kicked it off was hearing a talk by Gary Haugen who runs International Justice Mission, a US-based human rights organisation that helps girls who have been trafficked for sex. I took my proposal to the British head of IJM and they got behind it.
“Initially, I was sent out to Mumbai on my own and I spent six days in a care home, with young victims of abuse and trafficking. A couple of months later, I went back with a dance movement therapist and we stayed for three weeks, doing workshops and exercises with these traumatised young girls. The change in them in that short time was remarkable. They’d gone from being withdrawn and fearful to laughing and playing. They had rediscovered their value and their sense of childhood.”
A talented sculptor herself, Root is not only interested in using acting as a therapeutic tool, but also the other creative disciplines: dance, music and the visual arts.
But doesn’t this require a very specific kind of training and expertise?
“We’re talking about a hybrid,” says Root. “Talitha’s idea is to mix the skills of trained actors, dancers, singers and artists with those of professional arts therapists. They train us, and then we train the volunteers. We have a head of therapeutic development who ensures that everything is done properly and that it’s person-centred, which is crucial to this work.
“A dance therapist will also use verbal therapy, so they know how trauma is held in the body and how best it can be released. A visual arts therapist is trained in how to put down images or use clay to release those feelings. So we’re exploring these therapeutic models in all kinds of creative ways.”
In recent years, Talitha has been working closer to home, with ex-offenders and people with dementia. “You might start off with a drumbeat, something non-verbal, and it’s amazing how someone who has been withdrawn and disengaged will respond. We’ve had extraordinary responses to our work at a dementia care home in Twickenham, south-west London. My passion is to help educate people in how the arts can help victims of trauma and dementia. I think a lot of people who work in the care business are intimidated by the arts, but I know it works. I’ve seen it so many times.”
Clearly, the demand for creative therapies is on the increase and, if she wanted to, Root could devote herself to Talitha full-time. Her work there has already been recognised by the prime minister with a British Citizen award (2016) and last year she was nominated for inspirational woman of the year by GMTV.
But she has no desire to give up acting. “I did consider training as a therapist at one time,” Root says. “Then I thought, ‘This is not who I am.’ And even though I am chief executive of Talitha, that’s not who I am either. I’m a creative person, not a businesswoman. Sooner or later, I will hand over the chief executive job to someone better suited to it, and I will remain as creative director.”
Born: 1962, Chelmsford
Training: Webber Douglas Academy (1980-82)
• Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Company (1983)
• Macbeth, RSC (1988)
• The Seagull, RSC (1990)
• Conversations After a Burial, Almeida (2000)
• Enemies, Almeida (2006)
• The Norman Conquests, Old Vic, London (2008)
• The Deep Blue Sea, Chichester (2011)
• Donkey Heart, Trafalgar Studios (2015)
• The Forsyte Saga, ITV (2002)
• Persuasion, BBC (1995)
• The Iron Lady (2012)
• The Black Prince (2017)
Agent: Liz Nelson, Conway van Gelder Grant