Francesca Annis is a BAFTA-winning (and six-time BAFTA-nominated) actress who has worked in film, TV and theatre since the late 1950s and has worked with acting greats Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Dame Judi Dench and Michael Gambon as well as directors Roman Polanski and Trevor Nunn and even legendary singer-songwriter Prince (on his directorial debut Under the Cherry Tree). Here Mandy News has the pleasure of talking with Francesca about her astonishing acting career, her most recent play, The Children, and what actors can do to succeed.
Francesca, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into acting originally.
I’m an actress that has covered theatre, television and cinema, over quite a few years now. I started – quite frankly – by chance.
I originally wanted to be a ballet dancer but the break I had when I was quite young, which was just pure luck, was when I had an interview to go and see some casting people for the film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That was at four o’clock in the afternoon. I was training to be a ballet dancer and was buying ballet shoes at two o’clock around the corner from where the interview was to be had. My teacher told me there was no way I could have time off to go to this interview at four, so I popped in at two, just to tell them that I wouldn’t be coming.
I was standing there, and the receptionist said “Well, Mr Mankiewicz,” – Hollywood director Joseph Makiewicz wrote the final screen adaptation of Anthony and Cleopatra, and directed it – “is just going out of the door. He’s just leaving for Italy.” She called him, he turned around and I had a very quick interview standing there in the middle of the hall. He said to me “Well, would you like to come to Italy for a screen test?” and I said “Yes!” surprisingly enough.
That was absolutely a stroke of luck because, quite frankly, if I’d gone at four, along with 200 other actresses, to see the casting person, I don’t think I would have stood a chance, personally. That personal and private encounter led to me playing the part, and that was a very big film at the time. That basically launched me and took me away from the ballet. That’s how I started.
Did you seek out the theatre once you had an established film career? Was that something that you wanted to do or was it something you were offered?
No, I think at that time it was seen very much as something to do that was a learning curve, you know? You went to provinces and worked in the theatre. So I did. Then I came back and I did a film called The Eyes of Annie Jones with Richard Conte. I had played Iris in Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor – there are two handmaidens who die with Cleopatra and Iris was one of them. Anyway I played Iris and, a few months later, I made this film with Richard Conte. When I arrived my first day, my dressing room was full of Irises from Elizabeth and Richard, which is such a sweet thing.
After that I think I went and did a little theatre. I did The Glass Menagerie, down at Worthing Rep, and I did another play up in Leicester. I didn’t do a lot, but it was just seen as the thing to do and, indeed, I think it is still today, for young people. Of course, it is much better to go and start off elsewhere, where you can make mistakes. I actually don’t think I did enough, when I was young. I think it’s much better to go and do a whole load of theatre, out of the spotlight.
I’ve always had stage fright, actually, and I think one of the reasons was that I started off, when I was only 20, as a lead in the West End. There were five of us in something called Passion Flower Hotel – a musical by John Barry adapted from the novel by Rosalind Erskine. I think I found being in a West End show, and I had the solo number, when the spotlight went down on me and I had to sing, absolutely excruciating, actually. I think if I had done more theatre and had more fun, I wouldn’t have found it quite so paralysing as I did. I would highly recommend to anyone starting off to do as much as you can out of the main spotlight, so that when it comes up, should it come up, you’re ready for it and not intimidated by it.
I went off and did some regional theatre, and then started doing television. The first thing that really set me up in television was something called Armchair Theatre. At that time there was far less television, I think there may have been the BBC and maybe one other channel, but Armchair Theatre was the drama that everybody watched at that time, on a Sunday night. I somehow managed to get the lead in the breakup of a marriage, seen through the eyes of the children. I played the daughter, and I had a younger brother. It absolutely struck a chord and became a talking point, and was very successful and of course I went along with that.
At that time, I suppose it must have been the early ‘60s or something, there was very little drama about young people – everything was about the older generation. It was always about older people and this was just the beginning of an interest in seeing drama through the eyes of children.
Then I started doing more and more – classic series and things like that – which were very popular and then, at about 26, I went off to do Macbeth with Polanski and that sort of started off a whole other life.
When it came to working on The Children, how did you first hear about that? How were you approached? Was there an audition process? How did it come about?
No, I mean, quite honestly I’ve been around so long now that most people, not the very young ones, know my work. In a way, they want you or they don’t want you, so you don’t have to actually audition, because they’re familiar with you.
I had done a small film – you see you never know how one thing leads to another – for Lucy Kirkwood, who’s a writer-director, a year before The Children. It was a wonderful, surreal film called The Briny, and then she wrote The Children a year and a half later. James MacDonald directed it, and I had worked with him about eight years ago at the Royal Court. They came together to produce this play for the Royal Court. Lucy asked me if I’d like to play Rose in it, and I read it and said “yeah, I’d love to.” It was terrific, so that’s how it came about.
The extraordinary thing about The Children was that it was one of the very good plays that goes on at the Court. It's a writer's theatre that produces some of our most innovative and exciting theatre today. When you get good reviews in theatres, people always come to you and say “Oh, they’ll want to take you to Broadway” and Americans are interested and, of course, you never get there. They always say it but you never go. Funnily enough with this play they said “oh, there’s an American producer interested” and I said “yeah, yeah, been here before, and I doubt very much,”
It’s a play about three nuclear physicists, set in Norfolk, so I couldn’t see why anybody would be interested in America. Lo, and behold, we ended up on Broadway! You just never know. That’s the wonderful thing about this profession – you don’t know which way it’s going to twist and turn. We became the cult play on Broadway, so [laughs], how extraordinary is that?!
Was there anything that had to change in the play for it to translate to the American stage, or was it just kept exactly as it was?
There were a couple of references, just small references. I think Marmite was one of them. Otherwise, we kept it very much as it was. Of course the central issue was basically about taking responsibilities, about three people in their 60s and how we should be taking responsibilities for the latter part of our lives.
We were nuclear scientists, and it’s about how we could put back and do good and have a very positive trajectory, particularly in relation to the younger generation. It was something that people in America were very interested in.
The thing that Lucy was very taken with was the Fukushima disaster – the tsunami – where older people went in and let the young ones go so that they’d have more chance of a life. Very moving. I think that’s the kind of altruism that is part of their philosophy in Japan. I think we could do with a bit more of that over here.
Once you decided to do the play, what were the rehearsals like? How much buildup and rehearsal was there before it took place?
We rehearsed it for five weeks, I think. It’s interesting, how you gradually come to make an absolute commitment as to how you’re going to play that person or be that person. I decided I wanted to have grey hair.
I had worked with Deborah Findlay before, years ago at the Donmar. She’s always lovely, and I’d worked with James, as I said, on a play called Blood at the Royal Court, 10 years previously, so we were a group – we knew each other. There was only three of us in it, so it was quite intense in rehearsals because it means you just work all day. There’s no respite.
That was very interesting and, of course, the thing about plays like this is the rehearsal period is sometimes the most interesting part of the whole project, because we had nuclear experts who came in and talked to us. We started to feel that we were nuclear experts ourselves. We’re not, of course, but suddenly we learnt a whole new language and understood much more about nuclear which, in my case, was nil. It was very, very interesting.
It was nominated for a Tony Award for best play on Broadway. What is it you think that really took the imagination of the American theatre-goers?
It was funnier in New York. We didn’t make it funnier, New York audiences are so keen to laugh. They gradually feed into you where they want to laugh. Of course, you start to respond, because it’s give and take with the audience – you want to feel them out and see what their needs are and what your needs are and hopefully we can meet up.
We became a much funnier play in New York, and they were absolutely taken by the whole nuclear situation, and also by the relationships in the play. It’s a very, very good play – it’s very funny and Lucy’s a brilliant playwright. It starts off with you not knowing where you are. She doesn’t give you all the answers. American drama, by and large – I’m generalising – you know where you are, right at the beginning, and then you get on with the drama. You know who the family is, and where you’re going. Whereas Lucy’s play was much more elusive than that. You never knew what was actually happening until you were more than halfway through, and they were very curious about that. I think that’s something they loved about the play.
And then suddenly, when it landed in their lap, they were very taken aback and very, very interested. Of course, Lucy is just a brilliant observer, because it is a play about these three retired nuclear physicists, and she’s only in her early 30s herself. So it’s amazing how she wrote such wonderful dialogue, and understood the relationships of a married couple so well. Her instinctive antennae was very, very clever and very touching. She could see it from all points of view. So that’s why she was nominated.
Francesca, obviously the play is finished now – it ran in the UK first and then on Broadway – so what are you working on this year and beyond?
Well, I’ve got a lot of washing, and am one of the great unemployed [laughs.] I haven’t got a plan. I never worked to plans. I quite like being out of work when I’ve finished a big piece of work, because I quite like to have a big, open canvas and start again.
I’m also one of the world’s optimists, so I assume that something will turn up. I’m not thinking “no, I’ll never work again,” which I hear some actors say. I just think “Well, I hope something turns up,” and I expect it will.
That’s a great philosophy to have.
I tell you, it’s a very good one in this profession.
We talk to a lot of young actors coming in to the business and they often talk about dealing with rejection and that waiting between jobs is one of the big skills that you need. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s a very good to be curious about life, and that could take you anywhere. It could take you into doing voluntary work, it could take you into travelling a lot, but I think being curious is what feeds into your work.
I think it’s incredibly important that you don’t just sit around not doing anything while you’re not working. The whole thing is a lottery. You have to think, when you see something, “Oh that’s great, that could be me,” because it could be, easily. There are a lot of people who are very good, and things come around, and I think you have to hold on.
It’s quite important to have something outside of your work that you care about – a hobby. I was actually brought up as a dancer, so I’ve danced all my life. When I’m not working, I do a lot of classes still. I’m much older now, but when I was young I used to love going to class and was very interested in dance performances and things like that.
It’s really important to have something outside of your work that you’re not paid for, that you love, that you enjoy. Sports, or something.
What advice do you have for actors getting into the business and making it into a long-term career?
As I said, be curious about life, so you’ve got a lot to offer up, because acting is only about observation. If you don’t do anything, if you don’t get out there, if you don’t experience the world, you won’t have anything different to put into it.
They should also take as much advantage of seeing as much as they can. I know it’s easy to say that and the answer is often “Well, I haven’t got any money,” but there are lots of special offers – you can go and queue for £5 or £10 tickets. The thing is to see as much as you can, absorb it.
Also, just live a life because when it comes to acting, when it comes to being in a play, you call a lot on your own experience, and if you haven’t had any experience, you’ll be a bit of a blank sheet with no reservoir. You get experience, and it’s nearly always different than you think it’s going to be. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences that suddenly, you react to very differently than you thought that you would if you just sat down and had not experienced it but thought about it when you’re sitting in your room or with a script.
One’s got one’s imagination but, in reality, you often behave very differently and that’s what you’re going to call on when you get a good part or any part.
Also, always try to make more of your part than it seems on the page. When you get an idea about your part, your director will ask different things, but there’s nearly always another way of looking at it. I find that lying on the floor with my feet up at right angles and going through the part very quietly, like almost whispering or speaking it out very, very low, often brings completely different line-readings than when I’m standing up. I find that really helpful.
The other thing is to try and not be intimidated, because it isn’t, in spite of what I said about when I was young. I say this because sometimes I go to the theatre and think “Oh my God, they’re so brilliant, how do they do that?” [laughs]. Even though I’ve been doing it for years myself, I suddenly slip into being a fan, but if you haven’t done much work you can start to think “Oh, maybe I couldn’t do that,” but remember, you could.
If you’re up there it’s a very different experience. You just get on with it, and it’s very exciting and we can all do it, everybody can do it, that’s the point. As I said, it is a bit of a lottery, so don’t get depressed, and when you don’t get something my mantra, when you don’t get something, is to remember, whoever they cast, they’ll never be as good as you would have been.
It’s a good mantra. We like it.
Well, you know, it keeps your spirits up a bit. It’s their mistake.
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Excellent interview. Very interesting.
What a great interview. Very relaxed. Always admired Francesca. I even wrote a very gushing fan letter to her once. She never replied. I'm not surprised. I virtually asked her to marry me! Anyway, very inspiring and encouraging. Thank you. Simon
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