As well as watching TV shows and playing the piano, actor Harriet Walter has been filming one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. She tells Fergus Morgan about keeping her brain alive during the pandemic
If there were a club for all the card-carrying dames of British acting, Julie Andrews would be president, Judi Dench secretary, and Emma Thompson social sec. Harriet Walter probably wouldn’t be on the committee: she is far too busy for that.
The legendary actor, who joined the club in 2011, turns 70 this year and shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, she is speeding up.
Walter has been almost ever-present on the small screen in recent years (in The Crown, Belgravia, Succession and right now in Killing Eve on BBC One) but she’s also appeared in films (including Rocketman and The Sense of an Ending, to name two) and was the linchpin around whom Phyllida Lloyd built her trilogy of all-female
Shakespeares in 2016. She has, by her own admission, “become a bit of an acting machine”.
“I am hugely aware every day of how lucky I am,” Walter says of her life under the lockdown. “I’ve spent the past three or four years dashing around, staying in hotels, catching trains and planes, so I’m absolutely loving being in one place and collecting myself and spending time with my husband.”
She continues: “I thought I’d be very disciplined. Yoga in the morning. Writing a novel in the afternoon. But it’s just too much of a crisis to concentrate on telling a story or writing a play. There’s so little certitude around so we’ve been living very much in the present tense. I’d like to tell you about all the erudite, cultural things I’ve been up to, but I’ve had quite a nice escape from culture.”
I’ve been reading very eclectic, random things. Bill Bryson’s The Body is quite useful because he writes about what is going on inside us all. He was writing pre-Covid, but he does go into viruses and things like that. He wears his learning so lightly.
I’ve also re-read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, because I watched it on television and absolutely loved it. I’m not usually remotely interested in young love as I’m past all that, but I thought it was so beautifully acted and so beautifully adapted by Alice Birch – she’s a hero of mine – that I wanted to go back to it. I’m a bit of a Homeland freak, so I finished that, too. And I watched Unorthodox on Netflix.
I’ve been trying to play the piano. I never got very far with it at school. When you practise or rehearse anything, you’ve got to bear making mistakes and I never could. I hated making mistakes. Then when I was in my 30s, I started to play quite a lot. And then I abandoned it again and didn’t play for ages. It’s just for me, really. I’m never going to get up and play in front of anybody.
I’ve gone back to learning Russian. I tried to learn it years ago, but I never had time to do it regularly – and unless you do it regularly you don’t get better. I’ve done a lot of Chekhov, I’ve worked with a Russian director, and I’ve just played a Russian in Killing Eve, so it seemed like a good time to go back to it.
I speak three languages pretty well – French, Spanish and Italian – but Russian has a completely different structure, so it’s a bit of a brainteaser for me. I’m a bit obsessed with keeping my brain alive. I do masses of puzzles and things like that.
I’ve been part of the Wonderland Challenge, a project involving dozens of actors each reading a minute of Alice in Wonderland, so in the end you get the whole story told by lots of different voices. It’s a nice idea. My bit is near the end.
Whenever I get over-worried about something, or I’m terrified of an audition, I always say: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.” That’s not the bit I’m reading – I don’t even know if it’s a direct quote from Alice in Wonderland – but it’s something I’ve remembered since it was read to me as a child.
I’m also doing one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads for the BBC. They’re so brilliantly written. The director Marianne Elliott and I rehearsed on Zoom, so we got to know each other’s bathrooms and sitting rooms in search of a good signal. My husband even cut my hair with Zoom instructions from the make-up designer – luckily he’s a perfectionist and did quite a good job.
It all culminated in one day at the studio. We brought our own coffee, mug, water bottle and hand sanitiser. When we had breaks we sat 6ft apart. It reminded us all of being in an exam room.
Talking Heads will be released on BBC iPlayer on June 23