If Zoë Wanamaker has any jitters about appearing in this month’s West End revival of The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter’s darkly comic masterpiece, they are nothing compared to how she felt about Pinter himself. ‘He was funny but he scared the hell out of me,’ she says.
One particularly fearsome encounter took place on the opening night of No Man’s Land, in which Pinter performed alongside Yes Minister actor Paul Eddington. Wanamaker and her husband – actor Gawn Grainger, who also had a role in the play – were in a restaurant with the pair when a passer-by congratulated Eddington, ignoring Pinter.
‘Harold went ape****,’ she says. ‘He was ranting, “Why didn’t he say anything to me? I wrote the play. I was in the play!” ’ Wanamaker scarpered. ‘I literally had to go under the table,’ she admits at the London studio where she’s rehearsing The Birthday Party with co-stars Toby Jones and Stephen Mangan.
Now 68, Zoë Wanamaker says the job of being an actor isn’t getting any easier with age
Although Wanamaker is best known for television roles including My Family and Poirot, theatre runs in her blood. Her father, American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, devoted nearly 30 years to building Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Tragically, he died in 1993, four years before it was completed, and Wanamaker hasn’t performed there as she is still fuming about the resistance the project encountered. ‘It was painful that he struggled so hard and had so much opposition,’ she says. ‘It was hurtful to go in there and see it in its majesty.’
Today, the theatre world is grappling with far more sinister problems, with the recent sexual misconduct allegations against Kevin Spacey and influential director Max Stafford-Clark. Wanamaker says she hasn’t experienced harassment herself, and is at pains to stress that the issue isn’t confined to the entertainment business. Nevertheless, what could protect performers from abuses of power? ‘Themselves,’ she says, a response guaranteed to provoke eye-rolling in the post #MeToo climate for laying responsibility on the victims. ‘By being direct, being honest, being truthful and not being intimidated. Making things clear and saying, I’m not comfortable.’
Her actor parents, Sam and Charlotte Holland, who moved to Britain when she was three, discouraged Wanamaker from following them into the profession. ‘They were trying to protect me from rejection,’ she insists. ‘If you’re a mathematician, you’re right or wrong. But if you’re an actor, it’s all about somebody’s taste. I wasn’t conventional-looking in those days and they were concerned about that.’ Her parents thought she wasn’t pretty enough to get parts? ‘Not conventional,’ she repeats, matter-of-factly.
Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver with David Suchet in Poirot. Wanamaker is best known for television roles
Wanamaker with Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh and the Queen in 1998
She initially bowed to their wishes, and enrolled at Hornsey College of Art. But before long came drama school and later an Olivier award-winning stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
By the time Wanamaker turned 40, she was triumphing professionally – but her personal life had suffered a devastating blow. Her father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and became terminally ill. Along with her two sisters, she wanted to respect his wishes and help him to die on his own terms. Suspecting this was the case, the doctor rationed his morphine supply. ‘It’s cruel. It’s inhumane. Why does a human being have to go through that?’
IT’S A FACT
The Birthday Party received such savage reviews after opening in 1958 that Pinter nearly quit writing altogether. Fifty years later, it’s considered a classic
The experience has made her a strong supporter of assisted dying, but she insists she could never have administered the fatal dose. ‘I object that the family is put in that situation,’ she says. ‘It shouldn’t be their problem.’
Wanamaker has been married to Grainger since 1994. Are they similar to the Harpers, the dysfunctional couple she and Robert Lindsay portrayed in My Family?
‘Oh no, completely different!’ So what’s the secret to staying together? ‘I married late [aged 45]. Part of me thought, you can’t look for perfection. Instead you find out what’s good for you.’
Now 68, she says the job isn’t getting any easier with age. ‘Every time you go to a new space, or encounter actors you’ve never worked with before, that’s scary.’
Zoë Wanamaker (far right) as a toddler with sister Abby and her parents Sam and Charlotte
So does she ever consider packing it all in? ‘No!’ she exclaims. ‘Although I do ask myself why I do something that makes me so frightened.’ Has she found the answer? ‘Nope. Nobody does.’
‘The Birthday Party’ runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until April 14. Wanamaker is also in ITV’s ‘Girlfriends’ on Wednesdays at 9pm