Lia Williams: ‘Acting is so fragile – you’re always close to falling off a cliff’
Lia Williams may not be as well known as some of her big-name co-stars, she may not even have got into drama school, but none of this has stopped her ‘throwing her heart and soul’ into taking the risks she’s now known for. She tells Mark Shenton about Mary Stuart and taking it from the Almeida to the Duke of York’s Theatre
Lia Williams is an actor who has often been paired on stage with bigger ‘names’ than her own: Griff Rhys-Jones and Joanna Lumley in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Revengers’ Comedies, the first play that brought her to West End attention more than a quarter of a century ago; David Suchet in the original Royal Court production of David Mamet’s Oleanna; Michael Gambon in the original National Theatre world premiere of David Hare’s Skylight in 1995; and Kristin Scott Thomas and Rufus Sewell in Harold Pinter’s Old Times in 2013.
Now, her co-star is Juliet Stevenson in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre after opening at London’s Almeida in December 2016. Yet Williams is no supporting player, but a fiercely committed, rawly passionate and deeply sympathetic actor who ought to be a lot better known than she is. It’s partly about her choices, and her commitment to the theatre, above all.
“I’m a theatre animal,” she says as she sits in front of her uneaten lunch from Pret a Manger in the rehearsal rooms on the Holloway Road in north London. “I love the screen, but there’s something so dangerous about live theatre and the idea that you get a bunch of people all in one room at the same time in a live experience that has the possibility of affecting lives. It can change the way we think and feel, or at least it can make us think and feel. I’m passionate about the theatre.”
As such, she occupies a similar position to actors such as Mark Rylance (before his recent transition to Oscar-winning film star) and Simon Russell Beale, who are best known for their stage work, though she’s also been BAFTA nominated for the TV film May 33rd and was recently seen as Wallis Simpson in the Netflix series The Crown.
“On screen, your work is out of your control, because your director, editor and a committee of people start to decide what your performance needs to be in the structure of the story. But when you go out there in the theatre it’s just you and the audience and it’s up to you to catch it. There are moments in the theatre where you hear a velvet silence of recognition, which is much more exciting than laughter or even applause and you go, ‘Now that’s it – that’s worthwhile.”
And critics and audiences alike agree. She’s an actor who is always prepared to take risks – though it comes at a price. “It’s so fragile, this business of acting. You’re dealing with really fragile souls when it is at its best – you’re always this far from falling off the edge of a cliff. You’re toying with the edge of yourself and you know that something amazing can happen when you do that, but parts of it cause damage. It’s about damage limitation.”
She’s well known for playing what she calls “dark, difficult, layered people”; so how does she keep herself stable in the eye of the storm that she often throws herself into?
“I used to think it was things that stabilised me, but actually it’s the storytelling itself. It’s a really weird relationship – the thing that can knife you is also the thing that anchors you, and it’s very strange. I have a process of reading and walking and doing yoga – I do yoga to keep me physically and mentally focused – and I see friends to ground myself. It’s a lonely business, you struggle with it, but the struggle is worth it – it’s so exciting and so rewarding and, besides, what else am I going to do?”, she says.
Directing and role swapping
“I’ve made three short films, one of which was nominated for a BAFTA, and a feature documentary. I’m trying to make an independent fictional movie, but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s so hard to get the funding, so I’m on the slow burn with that.”
She’s also directed Leanne Best in Frank McGuinness’ The Match Box in Liverpool and at London’s Tricycle. “For some reason I got it into my head that to direct theatre you had to communicate your intellect, rather than your instinct. But I was wrong – because I’m an actor, I can sense how actors think, feel and what they need. You work through the story together.”
She relishes the challenges both bring. For Mary Stuart, she and Stevenson alternate in the roles of Elizabeth I, the Protestant Queen of England, and Mary, the Catholic monarch of Scotland, the latter of whom flees to England after she is imprisoned by the Scottish nobility only to be incarcerated by her cousin Elizabeth I for fear she would usurp her place on the throne.
It means, from a purely practical point of view, that she and Stevenson have both had to learn two sets of lines: “There are something like 1,400 lines. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, it has been a huge test,” she says.
Director Robert Icke has upped the ante by making the decision of which role each actor plays at the start of each performance. “Rob has engineered it so we spin a coin in front of the live audience, which is thrown up on to a screen,” says Williams. “There is no preparation time. We haven’t got a clue – so all you can do, and it’s really weird and kind of brilliant, is empty your head. You have to go blank and accept what comes at you. If it’s Mary, you’ve got to go fast, because you’re straight on; if you’re Elizabeth, you’ve got one act to sort yourself out and think Queen.”
So how did the coin fall? Williams says: “At the Almeida I did Elizabeth 27 times and Mary 24 times.” Does she prefer one to the other? “I genuinely don’t. They’re both dead exciting, and in a way one feeds the other. Mary is like an exhale – this romantic, free, wilful spirit who is born a queen and born into privilege and makes terrible mistakes. Politically and in her love and her life she gets just about everything wrong, but she’s charismatic and exciting and has this amazing ability to make everybody feel really special in the room. She’s brave and brilliantly clever.
Mary is like an exhale – this romantic, free, wilful spirit, making terrible mistakes. Elizabeth is the inhale – she’s held, pragmatic and political
“Elizabeth is the inhale – she’s really held, pragmatic and political to the point of being Machiavellian, but she creates her own cage with her own brand. She’s like a version of Lady Gaga. She’s created her own prison – it works very successfully, but she suffers horribly as a result of the world she has created. Playing them you can take fragments of both. Acting them is just brilliant – they release all kinds of different things in the other.”
Is there a danger of speaking the wrong lines? “There is, and I did. When we were previewing at the Almeida, I wrote a tweet: ‘I remembered all of Mary’s lines tonight, but the problem was I was playing Elizabeth!’ And sometimes when I’m rattling through the words in my head, I realise I’m morphing from one to the other; but they are quite defined, and because of the way we are rehearsing them, it helps us to separate them out.”
Q&A: Lia Williams
What was your first job? A job came up in The Stage for dancing girls in Spain – I’d done a bit of dance training, so I went for the audition and got the job. In those days you needed an Equity card to work, and being a showgirl in Spain got me mine. It was possibly the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but it was also one of the best – it taught me how to be strong and resilient and tenacious. And it gave me the card I couldn’t work without. It was my ticket, and I came back and got a role as an understudy in the original West End production of Daisy Pulls It Off, before taking over the role I was understudying.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Two things: that you don’t need a second string to your bow, and it’s important not to have one – you have to throw your heart and soul at it. You must only do it if you have a passion for it – anything less than that you shouldn’t bother. And secondly, my dad told me you can do anything you can put your mind to – but what I didn’t realise is there is a difference between how men and women are perceived in the industry, and that was a shock. It’s interesting and very much in the front of the news at the moment and an important discussion to have.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Harold Pinter, without a shadow of a doubt, Alan Ayckbourn and Robert Icke.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? There’s never been an alternative.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Yes, but I’m not going to tell you.
Preparing for performances
She amplifies that for the rehearsal period: “We have two separate rehearsal spaces, so Juliet and I are never in the room together except when we meet as queens, and it works great. We share ideas – we WhatsApp each other every night with any kind of shared thoughts of the day. And we bump into each other at lunchtime and will have a chat, but we are developing something entirely our own. It works, because when the meeting between them happens and we step up into that space together, it’s electrifying.”
There’s also been a gap of a year between the run at the Almeida and its revival for the West End, so they’ve had to re-rehearse it. “It’s kind of great in a way, I’ve done little gaps between transfers but nothing as big as this – but your mind doesn’t stop ticking over it, and your subconscious works all the time. The same has happened with Rob and Juliet. It feels different and deeper and bigger and better – and it is going to sit brilliantly in the Duke of York’s.”
It’s the same theatre that the Royal Court’s Oleanna transferred to, and she’s looking forward to returning. “I have a hugely romantic, wild soul about opening a show in the West End. There’s something very special about it, and I feel very lucky.”
In 2013, she also role-swapped with Scott Thomas in a West End revival of Pinter’s Old Times. “That play asks for it in a way because it’s from the memory of Colin, who has a crossover about two women he has loved in his life, and they compete for him. So it was a strange dream state that worked really well, the idea of us morphing into each other.”
The director, Ian Rickson, she says, took them and Sewell (who was playing Colin) to a house near the north Norfolk Coast at the start of rehearsals. “It was in the middle of nowhere, at a bleak, snowy time of year, and we improvised for four days around playing these roles and living in them – thinking about what they might eat, what conversations they had or walks they would have down the beach and what shells they’d have picked up. So when we went into the space, and Hildegard Bechtler’s incredible set, our heads were filled with this landscape we’d already worked in. It was an amazing experience, as well as challenging and difficult. It isn’t easy, this role-swap thing – but if it’s not a gimmick, which it wasn’t in either case, it is such an exciting acting exercise that you can’t not do it.”
It’s a technique, she says, that keeps the plays alive. “It becomes improvisational and you get very different shows. Both with Old Times and Mary Stuart, Ian Rickson and Robert Icke encouraged us to find our own performances, so we are not copying at all. These are two different productions of one play. And of course everybody you are working with has to do two versions of what they’re doing, so it is exciting for everybody and it keeps it alive and the audience feels as though it is part of that exchange.”
Nevertheless, she adds: “It requires huge mental and physical dexterity. In Mary Stuart, both queens are in a state of terrible emergency, Rob has thrown it so it leans into the wind and you have to be an athlete.”
She previously worked with Icke in 2015 on Oresteia, also at the Almeida, which transferred to Trafalgar Studios.
“Rob has this amazing way of communicating stories to you that you don’t think are necessarily playable. I don’t see myself as an academic – I’m very instinctive. When he asked me to do Oresteia, I told him I can’t relate to Greek tragedy. I’m impressed by it, but I can’t feel it. If I can’t feel it, I’m not going to be able to act it. He said to go watch the box set of The Sopranos. It’s about a family, it’s about morals and about what you do in crisis – and of course I got it straight away and could relate to it. He has an amazing ability to make stories accessible and so felt, and relatable for an audience so that it can feel as if it is dealing with a contemporary set of issues about the human condition.
“He’s done the same with this. This dusty, educational history play – with all respect to Schiller. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull this off, because I don’t really understand kings and queens. Again, he filled me with the idea that it’s not about queens, it’s about two women who are surrounded by very powerful men and leading nations in hot and difficult times in history. There is loads of stuff you can convey to an audience that makes it immediate and a bigger experience – something the audience can invest in emotionally and feel what these women are feeling and what is going on underneath. Rob is brilliant at opening up the ribcage and showing what’s inside his characters. He throws it on to the front foot and makes quite complex things easy to grasp.”
“I’ve just done a four-parter for Channel 4 called Kiri that Jack Thorne has written [transmissions of which began January 10], in which I’m playing a complicated, pretty despicable, but entirely human, woman who is not 25. She has a really interesting, complex set of issues and a complex emotional life. I am excited that we’re possibly opening up some doors to more roles for women with experience and wisdom. My sister said to me the other day: ‘The TV audience is no longer looking for a pretty face – it is looking for a story and women they can relate to’.”
Lia Williams’ top tips for an aspiring actor
• Try not to see celebrity.
• Never apologise for your passion.
• Take your work seriously.
Playing complicated women has provided her with a rich seam. In her BAFTA-nominated performance in May 33rd, Williams played a woman with dissociative identity disorder – “I played six different personalities.”
The personality she offers today is warm, open and refreshingly free of artifice; but she also takes her calling seriously.
People take the piss out of acting in this country – we’re all luvvies, and we have to apologise for being serious
“People take the piss out of acting in this country – we’re all luvvies, and we have to apologise for being serious; or if we say we are passionate we are suddenly intense and difficult. But it’s nothing to do with any of those things. Storytelling is what we’ve done since the beginning of time, and it’s important – it’s important we have it at the centre of our culture, and it matters. It matters that we do it well, and we get better at it and never stop learning. If people want to say that’s zealous, then so be it. I don’t see it that way at all – I just see it as a love affair and a huge privilege.”
And she can’t get enough of it. “I’m always looking for the next complicated challenge, something interesting I can communicate. Something that matters about the human condition. It’s like I have this thing on my shoulder, asking who are we as human beings? I’ll tell a story and then maybe I’ll be able to work it out.”
CV: Lia Williams
Born: 1964, Birkenhead, Cheshire
Training: “I did some ballet when I was younger. I went to ArtsEd in Tring and then I tried for drama school but I didn’t get into any. My dad said I needed a second string to my bow, so I did typing; but I thought, ‘Fuck this – I’m going to London’, and found a drama teacher who was brilliant and helped me find my voice.”
Landmark productions: The Revengers’ Comedies, Strand Theatre, London (1991), Oleanna, Royal Court and Duke of York’s, London (1993), Skylight, National Theatre (1995), Wyndham’s, London (1996), Broadway (1996), The Homecoming, Gate Theatre, Dublin; Harold Pinter Theatre, London; Lincoln Center Festival, New York (2001), Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (2013), Oresteia, Almeida, Trafalgar Studios, London (2015), Mary Stuart, Almeida (2016) Duke of York’s, London (2018)
Awards: Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for most promising newcomer for The Revengers’ Comedies (1991), Nominated for Olivier and Tony awards for Skylight (1996), Nominated for a BAFTA and Royal Television Society Award for May 33rd (2004)
Agent: Sally Long-Innes, Independent Talent
Mary Stuart is running at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London until March 31