At 84, grande dame of the stage Eileen Atkins continues to seek out challenging roles in the theatre, with the latest in Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm in the West End. She tells Tom Wicker why she prefers the stage to the screen, how she left for the US to learn to be more free, and how anyone can make it big if they work hard enough
Eileen Atkins has come a long way from Clapton, east London, where she was born in 1934 in the Mothers’ Hospital of the Salvation Army. She has forged an acclaimed stage and screen career spanning six decades, not only becoming one of British acting’s grandes dames, but becoming an actual Dame in 2001. And through it all she has not forgotten her roots. “I finally did my duty,” she says, “and read for the Salvation Army at the Royal Albert Hall last year.”
Actors, writers and directors who have long since become enshrined in theatre lore casually pepper Atkins’ conversation, often as colleagues and friends, sometimes as irritants. She is of the old school that has seen and done a lot and is not afraid to say what she thinks. There’s no anodyne PR patter.
We meet in a hotel restaurant in Cambridge, where she is touring in The Height of the Storm by French writer Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. Atkins plays Madeline, whose 50-year relationship with Jonathan Pryce’s Andre is upended by the past. The production plays Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End throughout October.
As Atkins apologises for her dirty thumbnails from the mushrooms she has to peel on stage, there’s none of the froideur she so memorably brought to the role of Queen Mary, Elizabeth II’s grandmother, in Netflix show The Crown. Nonetheless, she can be just as piercingly direct, sometimes with a hint of mischief. She’s engaging, impassioned and bitingly funny.
At first, Atkins turned down director Jonathan Kent, when he approached her about The Height of the Storm. She liked it but had to pass because she was preparing for another play – until casting difficulties meant that project fell through.
Kent, with whom she had worked on Edward Bond’s The Sea at Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2008, saw his chance. “He said: ‘You can do this one now,’ so I was landed with it,” she says with a smile, before adding: “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t seen something in it.”
Atkins was still nervous about signing up as she hadn’t been “absolutely crazy” about The Father, the play that first brought Zeller to the attention of the British theatre world. “I thought it was beautifully acted,” she says, “but I was cross with the way my mind was played about with.”
Unfortunate, then, that upon reading The Height of the Storm, Atkins found it “plays around with your mind even more”. Its deliberate repetition and switches between the past and present, sometimes mid-scene, made early rehearsals difficult. “Jonathan and I had terrific trouble with our lines – and not just because we’re old,” Atkins says.
Despite this, she has been “stunned” by the effect the play has had on audiences since it opened in Richmond. “The only way I can think of it is like abstract art. It’s not linear, it goes all over the place, and yet it seems to get reality and emotions across to people more than other plays.”
It is a style that seems to echo the writings of Virginia Woolf, whom Atkins has played on stage several times, including an award-winning turn in A Room of One’s Own. “Absolutely,” Atkins agrees. “It’s the same as Woolf’s writing, and James Joyce; it’s the same experience in theatre.”
Her misgivings about The Father aside, Atkins says she has always been attracted to French plays, adding: “There’s something more delicate and wittier about them.” She won an Olivier award for best actress in 1999 in one: Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man. Though “it was nobody’s favourite play”, she said of the 1998 production that went from the Barbican Pit to the Duchess Theatre, she “completely adored” acting in it.
Warming to the theme of her love of French plays, Atkins says: “They are more adventurous than realistic, ‘here we come, it’s another slice of life’ ones. I know we’re moving away from that in Britain, but, nevertheless, we’re still attracted to it – like roast beef. It’s a bit too solid.”
Atkins has been vocal in the past about her disdain for the West End’s reliance on sure-fire hits – its lack of adventure. “I like doing new stuff,” she says. “I don’t see why the West End shouldn’t take it.” That’s why she thinks it’s brave of Kent to take The Height of the Storm to Wyndham’s Theatre, “although [Zeller] has become a bit of name-seller. We’re safe that way”.
She was happy to work with Kent again “because he’s one of the few directors who has both ear and eye”, Atkins says. “I was so jealous when I saw his Medea, with Diana Rigg, a few years ago, because only Jonathan would have known how to have a chariot disappear into the sky.”
There are only a handful of truly wonderful directors, she continues, and even fewer who are able to bring the same insight to production design as to a script. “I don’t want to name names,” she says, “but I was once almost scuppered in a big play because I went on in what looked like Baron Hardup’s kitchen – and the director was brilliant with the play.”
Kent, by contrast, “seems to see the whole thing. He’s not a domineering sort of director”, she says. He’s not a practitioner of what Atkins calls, with deliciously dry contempt, “silly game-playing – banging sticks around the room, throwing balls. Because you can’t get to know your fellow actors over a coffee”.
But if Atkins takes a dim view of some of the rehearsal room techniques to have emerged over her career, she’s been committed to constantly challenging her approach to acting since her breakthrough as Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught in The Killing of Sister George at Bristol Old Vic in 1965.
“You must always try to go with the new because things move on all the time,” Atkins says. Laurence Olivier himself “gave us the best example, making sure he got to the Royal Court”, with its hard-hitting theatre style. She uses John Gielgud as an illustration of how time can be an unsparing judge of acting methods: “A brilliant actor, who gave fantastic performances, but he couldn’t move,” she says, gesturing below the neck.
Last summer, the BBC broadcast Nothing Like a Dame, a documentary that brought Atkins together with friends Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright.
• I’ve missed everybody who’s died. I mean, it’s dying time and it’s very sad. I’ve got a lot of good friends, actors, who are much younger than that. But what a pleasure it was to be with all of them. We’re on the same wavelength.
• I was talking to Maggie the other day. She said: ‘The trouble is, working gives a structure to the day’. Now, she likes filming. She’s got that structure. I like the structure of theatre.
• You don’t have to be a dame. Luckily, my two greatest friends in our business, Sian [Phillips] and Penelope [Wilton], have been made dames. We have the same experiences.
When Atkins was at the Globe in 2014 doing a solo show about Ellen Terry, the point was brought home to her by an actor in The Duchess of Malfi, which was staged at the venue before her. “There was a boy in the company who said to me: ‘We looked at your old TV version of [the play]. Sure, it was all right in its day, but we’re not doing anything old-fashioned like that now.’” Atkins watched that production. “This particular actor was dreadful,” she says. “I thought: ‘Actually, I was more natural than you’ll ever be.’ But there are different ideas of ‘natural’ all the time.”
The show on Terry, which Atkins also wrote, was underpinned by a lecture the subject, who died in 1928, had given on Shakespeare. “She said it has to be done for each age. When I think of all the Hamlets I’ve seen, there’s been a load of different styles, some marvellous”, she reflects. “You like the Hamlet you saw when you were the right age to think you could be Hamlet.”
It was Atkins’ growing frustration with the British style of acting that initially took her to the US. While the British, who were “terribly good with words”, acted from their heads, she felt the Americans were acting from their gut. “I saw [Marlon] Brando on screen and thought: ‘Jesus’.”
She continues: “I wanted to be like those American actors, so I went.” From her, they “learned to be more cerebral” in their approach, while she “learned to be more free”. While she plunged herself into theatre work, she did not do much screen acting while she was in the US, and she adds, placing a pointed weight on each word: “I don’t like filming.”
Atkins was irritated before we met as “somebody put in a paper the other day that I’d been horribly overlooked” on the screen. Her CV is studded with roles in critically acclaimed films such as Gosford Park and TV series including Cranford. “But I went into the business for theatre”, she says. “I’d hardly seen any movies when I was 19 and left drama school.”
Part of her issue with screen acting is the out-of-joint, disconnected nature of filming. She points out that she chose not to appear in the original 1970s TV period drama Upstairs, Downstairs, which she co-wrote. She only appeared in the revival a few years ago because, she says: “I was forced into it. I had a gun to my head.”
It’s also about control. Atkins loved working with “genius” director Sidney Lumet on Equus in 1977. But even then, she smiles, “he cheated me on one thing”. After she refused to act out a dramatic pause she thought was excessive, Lumet got her to close a door during the take. He then edited the scene, just as she turned, to get his pause. “He got it by a trick.”
She had another issue with screen acting. “I couldn’t bear to always have to think about how I looked all the time.” Does a focus on appearance frustrate her? “It’s no use ignoring looks or charm, if you’re going into the theatre,” she says emphatically, and “looks are certainly terribly important” in film.
While it irritates her, as someone who “wasn’t a dewy-eyed person”, she always wanted to play the leading female roles in Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen. “If you want to do that, you’ve got to have some looks.”
At a time when gender politics is a hot topic, she is blunt about the inequality of opportunity between men and women in theatre. “It’s there and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she states. But surely, she’s seen changes during her career? “Yes, of course it’s changed,” she says. “But I can’t bear it being forced.”
Atkins says so many plays have more men’s parts than women’s because they act as a reflection of a time when marriage was a woman’s destination and, with a few exceptions, “men did more interesting things. Now, once women are truly emancipated”, she adds, “and really can do any job they want, there will be plays about them”.
• I’m glad it’s being aired. I hate the witch-hunt that has occurred because of it. I feel it’s disgraceful that people are being condemned without trial. That’s wrong.
• You can be caught out. I’ve been caught out a couple of times. You have to be clever. There is a huge danger that the importance of rape, which is a terrible thing, is going to get lost, if you’re going to take somebody to court because his hand brushed your tits.
• We’re in a tricky era and area. The pendulum swings back and forth and I think it’s gone a wee bit too far. This has been a necessary point, but I fear there have been some unfair calls.
Is it that straightforward? Isn’t it still too often the case that there’s a gap between real life beyond the stage and what gets programmed by theatres? “That’s because we’re doing a lot of old stuff,” Atkins says. “From Shakespeare, we’ve got 400 years’ worth of fucking marvellous plays.”
Atkins gets angry when men play women’s parts in Shakespeare. “They were written for women and women can play them now,” she says. “I get just as pissed off when women play men’s parts,” she adds, although she acknowledges that Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar was “brilliantly done”.
“Every part should be played by the very best person you can find for it.” She concedes: “I’m not going to be liked for it.” But she has little time, for example, for the current argument that disabled characters should primarily be played by disabled actors. “The idea of an actor is that you should be able to play anything,” she says.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Usherette at a cinema.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Love’s Labour’s Lost at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 1953.
What is your next job?
The next series of TV show Doc Martin. There’s also a play that’s been roaming around since before The Height of the Storm.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The importance of confidence – confidence that you deserve to be there, to have that role.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My schoolteacher, Mr Burton. He was an amazing man.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Do something different. Don’t do your Juliets and don’t do a well-known play. Take a speech out of a novel. You’ll find some really good ones. Then you’ll get noticed. It works.
If you hadn’t been a performer, what would you have been?
I’m a qualified teacher. But I’d probably have hated teaching. I might have liked working in a bookshop.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Yes, it’s totally irrational. It’s whatever I’m told to do before I go on. It’s not a director, it’s a voice in my head. It might be ‘jump up and down three times and touch the pole 40 times’. My head says: “If you don’t do that, you’re going to fall over if you go on.” It’s total superstition.
Raising the issue that privilege provides some in theatre with a leg-up over those from working-class or minority backgrounds, brings a dry laugh: “Life isn’t fair, if that’s what you’re trying to say.” But at the heart of her outlook is a firm belief that “nobody has a ‘right’ to anything”. She’s suspicious of “whining”.
Atkins could be portrayed as conservative or old-fashioned for these beliefs, but that would be reductive. In her career she has refused to be pigeonholed, and has held producers to account for unequal pay. The women she’s written about and acted on stage, from Woolf to Terry, are mould-breakers.
Atkins herself comes from working-class roots. Unable to afford drama school, she did a teaching course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, while odd-jobbing and taking drama classes at the same time. She had narrowly missed out on a scholarship to RADA. She fought hard for her achievements and it clearly informs her views.
While she occasionally experiences “coils of rage”, she says: “It’s stupid to blame the luckiest people in world, like the ones who go to Eton.” Besides, alluding to Michael Burton, the teacher who first introduced her to Shakespeare and encouraged her pursuit of acting, she says: “I had the most wonderful man, so I can’t complain on that score. Everyone complains too much. If you really want it, by hook or by crook, you’ll do it.”
What keeps Atkins acting when many have comfortably sailed into retirement? “I enjoy the challenge each time, that’s the biggest thing,” she says. “It’s like a massive puzzle at the beginning: how the fuck am I going to do this? But that’s the enjoyable bit – as is laying it before an audience.”
Nonetheless, Atkins has watched some “very brilliant actors at the end of their lives”, aware that she didn’t see them at their best. “Touch wood,” she says (and does), “I appear to be physically and mentally able to still do the job I have done all my life.” But she also trusts the instincts she has developed in her career to tell her when to stop.
Until then, it’s easy to imagine that Atkins will continue to rehearse lines in the studio she built over the garage in her garden with – aptly – the money she earned from touring A Room of One’s Own around the US. “My friend Jean Marsh used to say: ‘The only difference, Eileen, between you and other actors is that you work a lot harder’.” She smiles. “I work hard.”
Born: Clapton, 1934
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• The Killing of Sister George, Bristol Old Vic/Duke of York’s/Belasco Theatre, New York (1964-67)
• The Cocktail Party, Chichester Festival Theatre (1968)
• Vivat! Vivat Regina!, Piccadilly Theatre/Broadhurst Theatre, New York (1970-72)
• The Unexpected Man, the Duchess Theatre (1998)
• All That Fall, Jermyn Street Theatre/59E59 Theatre, New York (2012-13)
• Outstanding performance, Drama Desk Awards (1972)
• Outstanding featured actress in a play, Drama Desk Awards (1978)
• Best supporting performance, Olivier Awards (1988)
• Outstanding one person show, Drama Desk Awards (1991)
• Best actress, Olivier Awards (1999)
• Best actress, Olivier Awards (2004)
• Best actress, BAFTA TV Awards (2008)
• Outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or a movie, Emmy Awards (2008)
• Best actress, Off-West End Awards (2013)
Agent: Paul Lyon-Maris, Independent Talent
The Height of the Storm is at Wyndham’s Theatre until December 1