Doctor Who and ER star Alex Kingston tells Tom Wicker about struggling to get into the ‘closed’ New York theatre scene, never playing the ingénue and how working in rep taught her to value every creative on a production
Alex Kingston is marvelling at the timeliness of the revival of An Enemy of the People, which she is set to star in at Nottingham Playhouse. Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play about a doctor’s struggle to expose an environmental scandal while battling a fearful media and a local population manipulated by a corrupt, self-interested bureaucracy could be ripped from today’s headlines. “Donald Trump, this dinosaur of authoritarianism, has literally used that phrase, ‘enemy of the people’,” Kingston says.
The British actor, 56, is probably best known for her seven-season run as Dr Elizabeth Corday in US medical drama ER. Latterly, she’s won new, diehard fans as Professor River Song, the time-travelling, maybe-wife of the Doctor in long-running TV show Doctor Who. Her last on-screen appearance as River Song was in 2015. She has since returned to the character in audio dramas. “I’m time-travelling more now than I was in the TV show,” she smiles.
Kingston, a RADA graduate, is also an accomplished stage actor. Earlier this year, she starred in Admissions, about the US college admission process, at Trafalgar Studios. She’s acted at the Donmar Warehouse in Luise Miller and in the West End in productions including One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 2013, she won acclaim for her performance as Lady Macbeth opposite Kenneth Branagh at the Manchester International Festival.
She was attracted to Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new adaptation of An Enemy of the People “because she’s touched on everything” that has relevance today, from climate change to ‘fake news’. “But it’s not like she’s completely changed it,” Kingston emphasises. The language may be modernised in places, “but Rebecca hasn’t pushed aside Ibsen’s play. Because what he was writing about, back then, is what we’re dealing with now”.
One big change, however, is the switch of her character, Dr Stockmann, from male to female. Kingston isn’t, she says, someone who necessarily subscribes to gender-flipping roles in existing works. “I don’t want to play King Lear, I don’t want to play Hamlet. I’d rather see new, heavy-hitting roles be created for women. It was ostensibly a man’s world back then. So, let’s now say: ‘Let’s create new works that celebrate the fact that’s no longer the case.’”
But when it came to An Enemy of the People, Kingston was fascinated by how making Stockmann female opened up the play’s power relationships and its themes of trust and belief in the context of sexism and misogyny. “Lines that have pretty much been lifted from the original now carry a completely different energy when they’re spoken by or addressed to a woman,” she says.
The play’s famous town hall scene, in which Stockmann’s attempts to reveal the truth about her town’s poisoned water supply are drowned out by chants of “enemy of the people” from a furious crowd, is a case in point for the actor. “It’s this perception of how women have been labelled,” she says. “That if they start to ‘rant’ about something, they’ll be called ‘hysterical’.”
But Kingston was also drawn to the play’s shades of grey. Stockmann is no saint in her increasingly messianic self-belief and her anti-democratic disgust at the townsfolk. Lenkiewicz and director Adam Penford haven’t shied away from aspects of the play that some adaptations have removed, including views of Stockmann’s that seem almost eugenicist now. “It makes her much more flawed and more interesting to play.”
And she sees some of Stockmann’s hardening self-righteousness reflected in the polarised debates around Trump’s administration and Brexit. “I’ve found myself shouting at the TV over the past few months, at people who don’t agree with how I feel about the situation we’re in,” she says. “We’re all stirred up.”
Penford gave a speech at the start of rehearsals about what he had been looking for after the decision had been made to switch Stockmann’s gender. “And he said: ‘We wanted to find a ‘muscular’ actress and you were the first person who came into our heads’,” Kingston laughs. “I think it’s a compliment,” she says, before adding: “I guess there is a certain energy.”
Certainly, from River Song to Lady Macbeth, the actor has excelled at bringing complicated, powerful characters to life on both screen and stage. “Even at drama school, I wasn’t the ingénue,” she says. “I was never going to get those parts. I played Cordelia in Nick Hytner’s King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it was absolutely ‘battle-ready’ Cordelia.”
She isn’t interested in embodying clear-cut characters. She only agreed to play Lady Macbeth once she realised she and Branagh had the same idea for the couple. “They weren’t these horrendous, evil monsters,” she says. “They were flawed individuals who loved each other. Of course, the potential to do what they do existed in them, but they’re not aware of it.” She wanted audiences to leave asking: “What would I have done?”
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
I was so naive when I left school. I had no university qualifications. I just sort of thought it would all work itself out. It could so easily not have done. But it was also the most extraordinary way of having faith in myself without realising it. So, what would I tell myself now? That it’s okay. Have faith in yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If I label myself as ‘eccentric’, a lot of my friends say: ‘Alex, you’re not eccentric.’ But I was quite different at school and afterwards. I was happy not to follow the crowd. When everybody was into the Bay City Rollers, my friend and I would watch French New Wave cinema. We were a bit odd. But it’s important to hold on to who you are and not feel like you have to disappear into whatever the homogeny is. So, I’ve never really had an influence.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
I love being able to express myself physically. I would like to have been a dancer or a dancer-actor. It would definitely have been something creative. I’ve just filmed season 2 of [Sky TV series] A Discovery of Witches. The set designers for that are extraordinary. You’re in Cardiff and you can’t believe it isn’t a medieval castle. If, when I was younger, I’d have known you could be that creative, I would have done something like that. I’d probably have gone to art school.
What’s your best audition advice?
Know your words inside out. I’ve helped people put themselves on tape and they just haven’t done the work. They’re grasping for the line. Picasso was the most incredible painter and draughtsman. He did all that background work first and then threw it all up in the air. That absolutely applies to acting as well. When you know your lines, you can throw it away and really start to explore who your character is. It liberates you.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
At the very end of a run, when the curtains come down for the last time and everybody has gone to their dressing rooms – before the crew come in to take everything down – I will go into that space, thank the spirit that is the character for having been with me on this journey, and then ask them to leave my body. People will think: ‘Oh my God, Alex is a nutter.’ But when you’re an actor, you open yourself up and you make yourself vulnerable. You have to – that’s how you find the character. But I don’t want that personality to remain in me. So, I ask it to leave.
When Macbeth transferred to the Park Avenue Armory in New York City in 2014, Kingston – who made her New York stage debut with the production – thought: “This is it, I have my foot in the door,” she says. Although it was “an amazing experience and enthusiastically received”, further roles in the city never materialised. “It’s such a closed world there,” she says.
She isn’t sure why it feels less closed in the UK, but she wonders whether having “a theatrical history here, which people know”, has made it easier for her to find strong stage roles. After graduating from RADA in 1985, she earned her stripes working in repertory up and down the country.
Those formative experiences are partly what she credits for the longevity of her career. “Doing regional theatre is like an apprenticeship,” Kingston says. “It’s where you learn your skills, social as well as acting. It’s where you understand that you’re a tiny cog in this machine that’s been created to put on a play. And you’re as much of a cog as the stage manager or doorman.” It’s an ethos she’s applied ever since. “Nobody is better than anybody else.”
This has changed thanks to social media, and not for the better, she says. With platforms such as YouTube, “so many people are suddenly becoming stars with no background in or understanding of the business,” she says. “They get offered a job and it’s all about ‘me, me, me,’ as opposed to everyone being in it together.”
When young people ask for career advice, Kingston tells them to read plays, see plays and try to get a training. “It’s all very well if you’re lucky enough to land a movie role. You may have an extraordinary talent, but it may just be that you have the right look at the time,” she says. “When you have grown out of that look, what do you have behind you that’s going to keep you going?”
Kingston considers herself fortunate that working on a long-running TV show such as ER “felt like being part of a theatre company. You’re not aware of ‘this is the lead, don’t go near them or talk to them’ – which can happen”. In fact, she says: “In that TV community, we were known as being a nice group. Everybody was equal.”
Wimbledon-born, she relocated to Los Angeles in 1997 to film ER, then stayed while her daughter completed her education. She has recently returned to the UK. “I’d been doing this massive commute most of the time,” she says, “because I was working over here a lot.” She hopes to continue working on both sides of the Atlantic. “But, culturally, despite Brexit, I feel happier here.”
Walking around London earlier this year, while doing Admissions, she was amazed by the number of female-led shows that were on at the same time. “You had All About Eve, Emilia and Home, I’m Darling. I really thought: ‘I don’t know that this has been the case before.’” As an actress, Kingston thought that, “when I hit 40, my career would be over”, she says. “I thought I’d have been living in a cottage, growing vegetables.” Happily for audiences, that vegetable patch can wait.
Born: 1963, Wimbledon
• Macbeth, Manchester International Festival (2013); Park Avenue Armory, New York (2014)
• Outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series, Screen Actors Guild Awards (1998 and 1999)
• Icon award, TV Land Awards (2009)
• Best supporting actress, Doctor Who Magazine Awards (2010)
• Best Actress, SFX Awards (2012)
Agent: Grant Parsons, Curtis Brown
An Enemy of the People runs at Nottingham Playhouse until September 28. Go to: nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk for more information