November/December 1999: Active Life

'Age doesn’t worry me, but getting parts is hard in your fifties'

She may have traded her Avengers catsuit for fishing wellies, but Dame Diana Rigg relishes each new acting role...particularly when she recalls the time when she was out of work for 22 months

The dame is daunting, with a glare of formidable force and a refreshingly forthright attitude to life, trout fishing, career and interviewers – "We need each other", she says briskly. She shows none of the irritation some fellow "serious" actresses might feign if they were still identified with a frivolous character played more than 30 years ago – Emma Peel in The Avengers. "It doesn’t bother me if the vast amount of viewers know me only for that. I am a serious actress but it sounds pathetic to bang on about it. You either accept your image, or go your own sweet way. You don’t have to succumb to it, or believe it."

Neither does she disdain touting for parts. When she heard Rebecca was being made, "I poked my head above the parapet and said, 'Adsum' [Latin for 'I am present'] and, 'Please consider me for Mrs Danvers.' That’s not demeaning. Anyway, I have no pride. Goodness me no. In my work – yes. But not about asking for a role, or its size. I was mum in Moll Flanders, a tiny weeny part. No, I wasn't in any of the sex romps."

Feline, wary and, I suspect, interestingly volatile, she talks a lot in one-word sentences, for emphasis, which is a bit "actressy", but there is no coyness about her profession. "The general theory is we act to escape ourselves. Rubbish! Your starting point is knowing yourself. No actor is a blank piece of paper. In fact the more successful, the stronger the personality tends to be." And difficult? "That's a cliché. I dislike it when people suggest actors are at loggerheads because of their egos. I've seldom come across jealousy. It's pointless."

The only subject she refuses to discuss is her private life. She has been married twice – first to an Israeli artist, Mechanem Gueffen, which broke up after 11 months, and then to Scottish landowner Archie Stirling, by whom she has a 19-year-old daughter, Rachel, which ended in divorce after he had a much publicised relationship with Vanessa Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson. "I’m gobsmacked when I hear In The Psychiatrist's Chair. Heavens, I wouldn't do that. I suppose you could regard it as a free half-hour on the couch, but it's voyeurism for listeners. I'm fascinated by people's private lives, but I much prefer it if they're dead. I hate revelations about the living, and skim those 'My lives and loves' stories, thinking, 'Oh, don't. Don't say that.'"

She once mentioned she would be heartbroken if she didn't fulfil her potential as a wife and mother and I risk the stony glare by asking if she has done so. "Yes. Absolutely. As both. OK? Mind you, motherhood continues. It's interesting. The mother of a famous person, who is more or less my own age, died recently and, however old you are, you still feel orphaned even if you've moved on and have a family of your own. That filial bond is always there. You don't grow up when your parents die, but it precipitates an intimation of growing up. I remember the feeling when my own parents died. Terrible!"

Born in Doncaster, she spent several early years in India, where her father was a mechanical engineer. At seven she was sent back to a Quaker boarding school in Buckinghamshire. "It was a fait accompli. My mother said, 'Your brother and you are going away.' Baboom! It was done like that in those days. A bit of a shock. I remember wet pillows on several occasions and writing to Mother asking her to allow me to come home, but our letters were screened, so I don’t suppose she received them. Even though one was unhappy it turned one into the person one is today, although I’m not saying one is all that brilliant." She has no sympathy with those who attribute midlife traumas to the "hell" of their childhood. "That's passing the buck. I would never dream of apportioning blame to my parents. They did what they thought was best."

She wanted to act from the age of 12, when her parents took her to see a performance of Henry VIII. "It was also to do with a love of poetry and a wonderful teacher who lit the flame. At first I really wanted to be a writer because I've always admired them, but all I’ve managed to do was compile books of poetry and theatrical criticism." One, No Turn Unstoned, was inspired partly by a comment when she played a nude scene in an indifferent play in New York. A critic described her as "built like a brick basilica with too few flying buttresses". He must have been shortsighted, as her "buttresses" are in notebly good shape, so far as one can tell. "It hurt at the time, but I laugh now. Criticism doesn't bother me at all. Nobody has escaped a bad notice. Nobody. That is reassuring, especially for students, which is one reason I compiled the book."

At the 17 she went to Rada, and soon afterwards became one of the RSC's rising stars. "They looked after me and I went where I was led. My ambition was never centred," she says, but she had no hesitation grabbing The Avengers when it was offered, in spite of mutterings from colleagues that she was selling out. "Television was regarded as the poor relation. That attitude no longer exists – even Dame Judi Dench does sitcoms. I'd never seen The Avengers because I didn't own a telly, but I had no doubt it was the right thing to do." She has always held out against TV commercials, though. "I'd love to do voice-overs but would never put my face to one. It takes a tiny bit of your credibility away." An instant sixties sex symbol with black leather outfits and karate-chop expertise, she insists her beauty was mostly a cosmetic illusion. "I wasn’t all teeth and tits. It took hours and hours to make me look acceptably attractive, even though I was only 25. They constantly dab at you, which I hate. I envied those guys who walked in, had powder put on their noses and left. Now at my age [58], playing character parts I say to make-up, 'You've got 15 minutes.' It's terrific."

The success of The Avengers led to a sitcom on American TV, Diana. "Disaster", she recalls, although the fee paid off her mortgage. "It was a carbon copy of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I didn't realise at the time. I had hopes, but after I'd been in Hollywood some weeks I realised it was going to fail. And deserved to. Doomed. I take full responsibility. No, I don't. The scriptwriter has 50 per cent. I wasn't upset. You learn a great deal from failure, and I realised I didn't want to live in California or be a telly star. Their lives are dictated by a series - week in - week out, 60 pages of dialogue and rewrites to learn. A killer. The actors become obsessed. They feel they don't exist as people unless they have lots of jobs lined up, and imbue it with an importance it doesn't have. I love living and believe your career cannot be your whole life. In a sense, it was a blessing."

Films have been a disappointment, too, including On her Majesty's Secret Service, one of the more trashy Bond films, and A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor. "I haven't liked any of them. I always think I could do better. The one I enjoyed most was Theatre of Blood, a very god horror spoof with Vincent Price as my father, which is now something of a cult. If money were my priority I might have concentrated more on films and possible would have had a major breakthrough. Who knows?"

Her daughter was born when she was 39 and she put her career on hold. "There was the odd play, but I hated saying goodnight to her at five o'clock, not being there at bathtime, or to read her a story and tuck her up. I don't regret not doing much, but it was difficult returning to work. I was unemployed for a long time. Without much money. A killer. Particularly as I was 50, well over the hill. I don't worry about age, but the parts don't come thick and fast in your fifties. I was out of work for 22 months - I remember the exact amount of time. Every actor does, except not a lot will talk about it. Awful. Like most actors I'll turn my hand to anything if push comes to shove, so long as it doesn't involve a computer or maths. I could wait at tables, and I'm very good at washing up. I wondered, 'What can I do to bring the pennies in?', took my No Turn Unstoned from the shelf, transformed it into a lecture, went to America and played some pretty swanky places including the Library of Congress and Harvard. It was courtesy of The Avengers they wanted to see me, so I was jolly lucky." And courageous, I add. "No. Desperate. I needed the money. I was divorced and have always been financially independent. It's probably my Yorkshire backround, plus the feeling that debt is a terrible thing. I'm not in the forefront of female liberation but it seems to me that economic independence gives more freedom than anything else. It's the little items - you buy presents with your money, not from an allowance.”

But since 1993, when her performance in Medea had ecstatic reviews in London and New York, where she won a Tony for best actress, there has been a renaissance, which continues at the Aldwych Theatre, London, until March with another searing, award-winning performance [last year's Evening Standard best actress] as Martha in Edward Albee's Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? It doesn't allow much time for her surprising passion - trout fishing. "It's wonderful - no, not at all boring. I love the countryside. Nature has its own rules and, regardless of what mankind does, the seasons visit us, the animals rut. Even when I don't catch a fish, there's the proximity to water, fresh air, birds, trees. You come away feeling you have been re-baptised."

Martha, the boozy, vulnerable, snarling, brash and funny wife in Albee's classic drama of marriage from hell, is very different from the prim Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's romantic novel. "I've always been fascinated by her," she says. "She's looked after Rebecca since she was 12, so it was many years of self-effacement, the servant who loves her mistress to absolute distraction and had no life beyond Manderley and Rebecca. Repression interests me, the forms it takes. She wasn't married - all housekeepers in those days were called 'Mrs' - and some might say it has lesbian overtones, but who cares? Mrs Danvers wouldn't have considered herself a lesbian, but her love for Rebecca is not entirely healthy. I'm not suggesting lesbianism is not healthy, I have to add very quickly, in order to be politically correct. Let's say it was obsessive, which makes it unhealthy."

Professional success has been mirrored by the title she was given in 1994. "That was a surprise. I think it was more for the work I do outside the theatre, and it was an honour to my profession. I consider that important. I rate my profession very highly." Others may think the honours system is an anachronism. "When you get your gong, as 'twere, you see it in perspective, children watching their fathers go up, husbands watching their wives. It's not inconsequential and certainly means something. It makes no difference personally, except people address me by my Christian name, which I like."

Now she is on to new challenges, including the possibility of Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? transferring to Broadway. "I've been lucky in the past few years and long may it last. I don't expect to be a film star at my age. I don't mind small parts, so I hope I'll be in pretty constant work. We actresses carry on till we drop, like shire horses."

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