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Selina Cadell: ‘Having a big budget makes me nervous’

Selina Cadell, who is directing Love for Love at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Selina Cadell, who is directing Love for Love at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

As she makes her Royal Shakespeare Company directorial debut, Selina Cadell talks to Maureen Paton about coaching Sigourney Weaver and lessons learned from a four-decade career

In a strikingly varied career, the actor, director and drama teacher Selina Cadell has an intriguing sideline: as an occasional acting coach to Sigourney Weaver.

Some directors are loath to direct big stars

Who knew that the star of four Alien films, three Ghostbusters films, Gorillas in the Mist, The Ice Storm et al would need, or indeed want, to be coached? Yet it has emerged quite naturally out of her 42-year friendship with Cadell, who explains: “I’ve noticed that some directors are very loath to direct big stars, so I think just to have someone they can sit down and talk the story through with is very valuable – since stars have to carry a film and there’s a huge amount riding on their shoulders.” (Sigourney Weaver later confirms to me over the phone from New York that “directors are afraid to direct you if you’re well-known because they assume you think you know everything – but we all need to be directed. When I played an autistic woman in the film Snowcake, Selina’s advice gave me a lot of courage.”)

And it’s a two-way process, according to Cadell: “I only do what most people would do: provide a bit of a sounding board. I’ve taught Sig to breathe properly; and in turn I’ve found that watching her on a film set has been very valuable, because she’s an instinctive screen animal. I can take any criticism from her because I know it comes from a source of great truth, integrity and understanding. We’re both interested in the quality of the work rather than the budget attached to it, which is why she keeps going back to the theatre.”

Selina Cadell with Martin Clunes and Sigourney Weaver on the set of Doc Martin
Selina Cadell with Martin Clunes and Sigourney Weaver on the set of ITV’s Doc Martin

These lifelong friends have acted together twice on screen: firstly on Snowcake in 2006 with Alan Rickman and now most recently on ITV1’s Doc Martin on October 26, with Weaver guest-starring in a cameo as an American tourist alongside Cadell as the village pharmacist and Martin Clunes as the eponymous GP.

Not everyone gets to coach Sigourney Weaver or her ilk, of course, but a multi-disciplined career like Cadell’s seems an admirable strategy that avoids the actor’s hazard of unemployment. “I don’t really feel the pressure to push myself as an actor as my older brother Simon did,” Cadell says of the Hi-De-Hi! comedy star Simon Cadell who died at the age of 45 in 1996 after admitting in an interview three months beforehand that most actors were “workaholics” who needed “tunnel vision” to succeed. Instead, his sister says, “I don’t really have goals like ‘I must play that part and I must succeed and I must be famous’; the process of acting really interests me, that’s why I love directing and working on plays with actors, unravelling literature and interpreting words for a role.”

I made sure I didn’t go to auditions with ‘I’m hungry’ written all over my face

Over a four-decade career, she’s performed in everything from Chekhov and Shakespeare to French and Saunders, Catherine Tate and Alan Bennett. Yet as the daughter of actor/director Gillian Howell and the late theatrical agent John Cadell and the granddaughter of WC Fields’ leading lady Jean Cadell in Hollywood’s 1935 film of David Copperfield, Cadell has an insider’s realism about her profession. When I last met her two years ago, she told me: “Maybe it’s because I come from generations of actors, but I don’t feel I’m owed anything by this business. So I never really felt I could live in that actors’ world of being completely dependent on when the phone rang to give me a job; it can be a very cruel world if you give yourself entirely up to it. I made sure I didn’t have those endless hours of twiddling my thumbs and feeling my self-esteem run out and then going for the audition with ‘I’m hungry’ written all over my face. Instead I can sometimes go, ‘No, I don’t want to do that part, I’d rather do my teaching.’”

Nicholas Le Provost in Love for Love
Nicholas Le Prevost in Love for Love

Now 62, she’s head of drama at the National Opera School, where she teaches “young singers to believe what they sing at the time they happen to be singing it,” and also works regularly at the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum. As a director whose productions include The Way of the World, The Importance of Being Earnest, Candida, The Rivals and Handel’s opera Arianne in Crete, she has carved out a reputation with the classics – and is now making her Royal Shakespeare Company directorial debut with Congreve’s Love for Love, the first time the play has been staged at Stratford. The cast is led by the great Nicholas Le Prevost alongside rising star Tom Turner. “I’ve been used to budgetary constraint, so having a big budget with this one is amazing – there’s nothing you can’t have, which makes me rather nervous, actually,” admits Cadell.

Yet she also makes time to teach at the drama school attached to Johannesburg’s famous Market Theatre, a setting that’s a world away from Restoration drama. “You learn such a lot from the kids from the townships who have never heard of Shakespeare,” she explains.

Talking of Shakespeare, the 5ft 11in Sigourney and the 5ft 5in Selina would have been a director’s dream casting for Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Wouldn’t that have been fun,” says Cadell wistfully. “But it’s too late now – unless we do the geriatric version… We must do a Restoration play together instead.”

Love For Love opens at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on November 4 with previews from October 28

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