Actor Marina Sirtis: ‘You know you’re an icon when the drag queens start doing you’
The Star Trek actor – originally from Hackney – is returning to the UK stage in a play about a former TV sci-fi star. She tells Tom Wicker about the pressures still faced by older women actors and her own #MeToo experiences
Even 17 years after it was last broadcast, Marina Sirtis is still best known for playing Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Over seven seasons and four films, she played the Enterprise’s half-human, half-alien counsellor in arguably the most popular series in one of science fiction’s most successful franchises.
Troi started life as a serious character, in a maroon jumpsuit, with a vaguely continental European accent, which was gradually dialled back as the series progressed. Sirtis – who is of Greek heritage – has said she was initially cast for her ‘exotic’ looks. She has lived in California as a naturalised American citizen for decades. It’s where Star Trek was filmed and where she continues to work.
Yet she is from Hackney. A “true cockney”, her accent undimmed by 30 years of living in California, she’s also a passionate fan of Tottenham Hotspur football club. She has a Spurs tattoo and a laugh that makes you want to hit the town with her.
Now Sirtis is back in the UK for a stint in the theatre. She has returned to London to begin rehearsing Dark Sublime, Michael Dennis’ debut play, directed by Andrew Keates at Trafalgar Studios. Sirtis stars as Marianne, a jobbing actor and now-forgotten icon of a British sci-fi TV show, whose encounter with a fan changes both of their lives.
Dark Sublime’s fictional sci-fi show – which Sirtis describes as “kind of an obscure thing that only a few people watched” – is worlds away from the global success of Star Trek. Nonetheless, she found some similarities between herself and Marianne so uncanny – from her personality to her speech patterns – that she rang Keates and asked if Dennis actually knew her. He didn’t. “But it’s me,” she says. “It’s eerie.”
For someone who prefers to “disappear” into a role – when she played an Iranian woman in Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning film Crash, her transformation was so complete, a friend didn’t believe she was in it – being Marianne has left Sirtis “excited, nervous and terrified in equal measure”.
Unlike Star Trek’s Troi, who often had to play the mediator in heated intergalactic disputes, Sirtis is happy to speak her mind. She isn’t on Facebook – “it’s all about greed and making money and Mark Zuckerberg has no conscience” – but regularly uses Twitter to take down Trump supporters for example, as well as to highlight issues within her industry.
Q&A Marina Sirtis
What was your first non-theatre job?
When I was 13, I was a shampooist at an old ladies’ hair salon in Chalk Farm.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Jacqueline, in French Without Tears at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, 1976.
What’s your next job?
I know what’s coming, but I can’t tell you.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be nice to everybody.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Do you really want to know? It’s Tottenham Hotspur. I had a horrible childhood – I think a lot of actors do, which is why they want to be somebody else. Loving football saved my life. Going to White Hart Lane was the one thing that I had to look forward to every week. Back then – before the Hillsborough disaster – we all used to stand up. There was this camaraderie and it was just brilliant.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Take your time. Actors – especially young actors – go into the room as if they have to hurry up and get out. So, I always say to young actors who are auditioning: ‘That’s your time in the room. They want you to be right for the job. They’re looking for someone. Why shouldn’t it be you? Take as long as you need.’
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I never considered another career. Consequently, I never trained or took jobs where the salary would entice me away from my dream.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always put my right shoe on first. It’s for a really stupid reason. When I was 14, I fell in love with Joe Kinnear, who played for Spurs. I read somewhere that he put his right shoe on first, so I started doing it too. Now, I can’t stop – just in case.
Dark Sublime proved particularly attractive to Sirtis because it focuses on the complexities of relationships and puts an older female character centre stage. Such an opportunity is why she likes theatre. On Twitter, or the stages of sci-fi fan conventions, she has consistently railed at the lack of visibility for older women in Hollywood. “There is none,” she reiterates.
What about the likes of Judi Dench or Maggie Smith? “They were pretty in their youth,” Sirtis says. “And they’re iconic actresses. You have to be really established.” She says that not much has changed since she relocated to California in the mid-1980s. “You’re not allowed to be unattractive, over 40 and not wear make-up. It’s a whole different set of rules for actresses and actors.”
Sirtis, now 64, is open about the pressures she faced while making Star Trek: The Next Generation. The empathic Counsellor Troi (who could sense emotions) offered guidance to Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard and the crew of the Starship Enterprise. But she only got a proper uniform in the sixth season.
“The only reason I wasn’t wearing it at the start was that I was too fat for Hollywood,” Sirtis says wryly. “If you’re pretty, you’re not allowed to be overweight. I was not a Skinny Minnie.” She would get phone calls from the show’s executives, she says. “The good news is your work yesterday was fantastic; the bad news is you look fat,” they’d say to her. They would remind her that she was being paid well to look good.
When it comes to the dark side of film, TV and theatre’s treatment of women, Sirtis is “in awe of those young actresses” who have spoken out as part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. She reveals she has been assaulted during her career. “I went to see an agent here and he lifted up my dress,” she says. “And I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead,” she adds, but she hopes that film director Michael Winner, who directed her in Deathwish 3, will “rot in hell for all eternity”.
Sirtis didn’t speak out when it happened to her, “because you were told you wouldn’t work again”, she says. “And I wasn’t going to let some idiot who didn’t know how to behave destroy the dream I’d had since I was three years old.”
Pursuing an acting career wasn’t easy for a teenager from a working-class East End background in the 1970s and many at her school tried to warn her off it. “They’d give me leaflets saying that actresses only earned roughly three grand a year and that I’d starve,” she says. But she wouldn’t be deterred. “I was just a show-off, I suppose,” she jokes.
Sirtis’ determination eventually led her to win a place at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, thanks to the encouragement of her history teacher and a grant from the council. But she didn’t enjoy her time there. “I spent every lunchtime sitting in a tiny room in front of a mirror with a bone prop in my mouth, learning how to do RP,” she says. Her background and accent were seen as a liability.
“Fortunately, I don’t care what people think of me,” Sirtis says. While the posh, blonde-haired actresses nabbed the showy roles, “I got my hair and makeup done at Elizabeth Arden, found a glamorous photographer and got an agent through my headshots,” she says. She relates – with relish – the condescending director of drama’s shock when she left Guildhall to play Ophelia at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre.
But Sirtis is grateful for having been able to go to Guildhall. When she went to drama school, it was still free. She’s horrified by the cost today. “They’re all old Etonians,” she says. “I’m not saying they’re not good. Eddie Redmayne? Fantastic. But they went to public school. They’ve got well-off parents who can pay.” It’s gone “totally backwards” for aspiring working-class actors.
After a fulfilling a period in repertory at the Connaught, Sirtis got her first TV job and moved to Los Angeles a few years afterwards to escape a broken heart. “I cried all the way,” she says. “The flight attendant asked if I’d like to watch the captain fly the plane.” She won the role of Deanna Troi exactly six months after arriving in the US, just as she was packing to come home.
Troi is likely always to be the part for which Sirtis is best known. And while some ex-Star Trek actors have subsequently resented the franchise’s looming presence, Sirtis happily describes it as “the highlight of my life”. To be ungrateful, she continues, would be wrong. She formed lifelong friendships with her cast mates and loves meeting her fans. “It was because of that show and that role that I’m here today.” She adds with a laugh: “And you know you’re an icon when the drag queens start doing you.”
CV Marina Sirtis
Born: London, 1955
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Theatre: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (1985)
TV: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Film: Crash (2004)
Awards: Screen Actors Guild award for Crash (2005)
Agent: Nick Errington at Grantham Hazeldine
Dark Sublime runs at London’s Trafalgar Studios from June 25-August 3. Details: trafalgarentertainment.com
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