FIVE QUESTIONS FOR ... FRANCES BARBER
THE BELOVED BRITISH ACTRESS AND TWITTER WONDER WEIGHS IN
(Above: Best friends, Sir Ian McKellan and Frances Barber. She moved in with him for a time so he could care for her. Read the interview below to find out why. Photo from The Times. )
I first saw Frances Barber on a West End stage when I was spending a Thanksgiving holiday in London with some family members in 2004. She was starring as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater. Lyn Gardner in her The Guardian review said of Slater, “He is up against the best in Frances Barber's Nurse Ratched, a performance of such delicious camp nastiness that it puts you in mind of Cruella de Ville crossed with Joan Crawford. Barber's achievement is to let you see the cracked heart that lurks behind the witchy mask and sweetly poisonous smile of tender concern. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be understood as a metaphor for the defeat of anarchy and revolution by authority and reactionary forces. But the sheer strength of Barber's central performance emphasises its less radical and possibly less amusing implications as a piece about big men belittled by women, castrated not just by drugs and lobotomies but by the overpowering effect of a malevolent, twisted mother love.” I thought Barber was more Margaret Thatcher thatched together with a hammy, sexy slice of Salome - and what delicious ham it was. There is no other way to play the character but a bit clenched as one heads over-the-top with it since Ratched is both a symbol of emasculating authority and a rather misogynistic (even simpering) symbolization of the misplaced male fear of female power ultimately feeling like castration itself. Barber nipped that faux fear in the testicles and took the character into a realm that surprisingly felt like reality and that was the most fearful place for such a character to be.
But that is Barber’s genius as an actor, the destination where we arrive as we watch her thinking she is leading us somewhere else. There is surprise in her that awakens it within us. She more than captivates us as an actor; she captains us. Known for such diverse roles as Goneril to her dear friend Ian McKellan’s title role in King Lear and Arkadina to his Sorin in The Seagull, both directed by Trevor Nunn, to playing Claudius in an inspired bit of gender-blind casting to McKellan’s age-blind Hamlet, to appearing in music videos for The Pet Shop Boys which led to her legendary musical role Billie Trix in their Closer to Heaven and Musik, to her myriad television appearances, including in Doctor Who and Silk, to playing Diana Vreeland in We’ll Take Manhattan about the love affair between photographer David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton, she is presently leading the sublime cast of The Unfriend at the The Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus in the role of a Trump-loving houseguest in the English countryside who just might be a serial killer. It is written by Steven Moffat and directed by Mark Gatiss, the creative team behind the BBC’s Sherlock. Oh, and it’s a comedy. She gets every laugh in the script and even some that aren’t embedded there. It is a masterclass in timing and even temerity. Don’t miss it if you are in London and in need of more than a laugh, but many. It is scheduled to close on April 16.
I met with her between shows in an authority figure’s hidden office at the theatre. Here is an edited version of our 90 minute conversation that took place after a matinee at which the audience had roared with approval of the show. I adore her.
(Above: Frances Barber as Elsa in The Unfriend. Photo by Manuel Harlan.)
I love matinees myself. I tend to book a lot of them because as a student of acting I think one gets great performances at a matinee; actors are relaxing - not saving - knowing they have to do it again in the evening and from the relaxation comes sometimes remarkable and deep and even more truthful performances. Before I turned on the tape recorder, you were raving about your matinee audience and its giving you a lift today. Do you love attending matinees when you’re an audience member?
I totally agree. I always go to matinees. Always. Definitely. If I’m going to see my friends in plays, I definitely would go to a matinee. Because, as you say, people are relaxed. And also - hmm, okay, I will say this - sometimes because you know you have another one you get through it quicker. So you don’t actually milk things. I am not suggesting that possibly anyone on this show would dream of doing such a thing. But I have gone to some performances and you’re told it’s five minutes longer in the evening. I don’t know why. Psychologically I don’t know why. But I think matinees are always the best. And you get out and it’s still light. You can have an early supper. But it’s mainly about the relaxation. And if you’re in the production, you can play. You go, I’m relaxed this afternoon and the audience is having a ball and I can play a little bit. We all feel that as actors - particularly in this. So all kinds of different things can happen that can be a bit more magical … Because this is a farce it does tend to be more exhausting [than Chekhov or Shakespeare]. It’s physically exhausting. But I remember being in Chekhov. I remember being in Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi (she was Sonya to his Vanya on the West End) and I’d get to the interval and I’d think, “All I’m going to do now for the next hour and half is cry - and I had to cry as if my life depended upon it.” Now that, I found very tiring.
You have said that Roger Reese taught you the importance of not thinking when you were Ophelia to his Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. So who taught you how to think?
I am a thinker about many things. But it is true that when we did Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh in the ‘80s in Stratford, I presumed that someone as debonair as Roger would go home and watch BBC Newsnight. He’d go, “Oh, no. I watched Blankety Blank,” which was a really stupid, stupid, stupid program. He’d watch the stupidest English comedy nonsense you could think of. And I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. And he went, “I’ve just played Hamlet. The last thing I want to do is look at the news and how everything is devastating.” I have lived with Ian McKellan during certain times in our lives and he is the same. He’d watch Paul O’Grady in drag. Blankety Blank. He’d watch anything at all to get rid of King Lear when I was living with him during that run so he could then relax and sleep.
You need to come down from not only from the physicality of your art form but also from the adoration it elicits. Adoration is a kind of drug. It’s all very heady in a lot of ways.
I remember reading William Hazlitt and his writing something about our having to give actors a break because, during Elizabethan times, they were up there and then they’d go to the tavern and they’d drink too much. But we know why they’d drink too much because they’d have to come down from the high of their performing. So we have to cut them some slack. I have often thought of that. So if anybody goes, "Well, you were in The Ivy club till God knows what time …,” I can go: “Well, Hazlitt said you have to cut her some slack.”
So he’s the one who taught you to think.
He taught me to think.
But I said think, Frankie, not drink.
(Laughing) Okay. He taught me to think and drink.
There is a great line in The Pet Shop Boys song “Friendly Fire,” that refers to crying as a danger to mascara. You know how to cry onstage - you have already referenced your being one of the great onstage criers - but I was wondering if you know how in real life. When was the last time your own mascara was truly in danger - when you had your bike accident and were hit head-on by that truck and broke one of your knees and had to learn to walk again when Ian [McKellan] took you in to help you heal during one of your roommate periods?
I did look death in the eyes. I saw the whites of the eyes of the lorry driver when he hit me. I was lucky not to have fallen and been dragged under the thing. But I didn’t cry actually. I think I was in shock. And I was so angry that it happened and I was in such a terrible state of self-pity that I don’t think I did cry. I was just so annoyed. But then again, years afterwards, I did it again on the other knee when I fell off a horse while I was filming. As I landed on my knee, I knew what I had done. It was one of the horses that had been trained for War Horse so he had been trained not to flinch at gun shots and screaming and such. And I screamed, but he didn’t move. Thank God or I would have had no head left. That night when I got home, then I cried. Because I knew how long the rehab was going to take just to learn to walk again.
God, you’re a survivor, Frankie.
It’s a combination. I have good DNA. My father was very robust. But I think it is also determination. When I did the first knee, I’d walk up and down the swimming pool during that first rehab going, “You’ve got to get better, you’ve got to get better, you’ve got to get better … you’ve got to learn to walk again.” It was about both my life as well as my career. I did not want to have a gammy leg for the rest of my life and also I wanted to work. I need to work.
You are so connected artistically and personally to The Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. When you were at university who was on your walls?
It was always David Bowie. Always. David Bowie - and then Prince. I worshipped Prince. I mean, I loved Annie Lennox and people like that. But it was always David Bowie. He just blew everyone’s minds. He did all the gender bending stuff that young people all think they’ve now invented. Those of us my age go, come on, we saw this in the late 1970s. David Bowie was a genius. No one had ever seen this, anything like it. I remember I was at school in Wolverhampton, which is a very industrial town in the Midlands, and he was doing the “Aladdin Sane” tour. I think I was in the Sixth Form. Those of us in school who loved him went along. I think we talked of nothing else for probably a year. We’d never seen anything like this. We’d never seen makeup like it. The way he moved. He was like a ballet dancer. The music, of course, speaks for itself.
He refused to be defined. There was no definition for him. He was fluid before there was a term for fluidity.
That’s it. Exactly. And in those days in the Midlands, it was very much about Heavy Metal. The band Slade was from Wolverhampton. I never liked Heavy Metal. Then suddenly this creature from another world arrived. I know after I saw him, I went: I want to go live in London. He inspired me to move to London. He made me go, I'm getting out of here. He gave me hope and opened a door to a world I didn’t know existed actually.
(Above: A double-page spread from the inside of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” tour program. )
There is another Pet Shop Boys song called “Closer to Heaven” in which they sing, “never been closer to heaven, never been further away,” and then they start singing about hope. Do you think having hope is harmful or helpful?
Isn’t it said that once you open Pandora’s Box the only thing left is hope. But … it can also be destructive. It can. Because if your hopes are dashed …
That's what heartbreak is. Heartbreak is the death of hope.
Exactly. Exactly that. I do have to say to myself every now and again: come on, come on, you can’t give up, you can’t give up …
You have had those two awful accidents, Frankie, after which you had to learn to walk again each time. But we also share an intimacy with grief. I lost my father when I was seven to a car accident and my mother when I was eight to cancer. You lost your mother and your brother in the same year.
I was around 30 the year of those deaths for me. They were both rather young. When my brother died in his own car accident, my mother had died only nine months before. I was making a French film in the former Czechoslovakia. I was way, way, way over on the other side from Prague. It was 750 kilometers or something from Prague and I found out he had been killed in this car accident. I had two brothers and when my boyfriend told me my brother had been killed in a fatal car accident I had to ask which one and it was even more devastating. Anyway, I came back for the funeral. Of course, any other job one would have left. But I had to go back to finish filming. I have never been so depressed and in such despair. Never, never, never. It was the worst that I have ever been. I remember it was beyond snowing and I was at the airport and I was just sitting there drinking Diet Coke and thinking, “I can’t carry on. I can’t. It’s too big this grief now.” And I kept getting these messages: “Miss Barber, the planes are not taking off to get to the other side of Czechoslovakia. The snow is too bad. We’re going to send a car. No, we can’t send a car.” It went on and on and on. And I knew I was filming at 7 the following morning. They then told me I couldn’t take the train because it was full of bandits and robbers and it would be too dangerous. Eventually about midnight - and I had been there the entire day - they said, well, you’ll have to get the train. So I got into the compartment and onto the couchon - the little sleeping couch-like thing - and I put the little pathetic lock on and my bag against the door. Now in the film version of this story I would have then taken a load of sleeping tablets at this point. I had some sleeping tablets that the wig man gave me because I wasn’t sleeping.
So you are telling me you had suicidal ideation.
Yes. I definitely did. I definitely did. You were just asking me about crying. I might cry when I tell you this, Kevin. (She pauses. Gathers herself.). But I sat on the thing - the little sleeping couch - and had those thoughts. My mom used to say to me that if you’re nice to me that I’ll break down but if you’re nasty I’ll fight back. I didn’t have the pills in my hand but I knew where they were in my bag. I sat on that thing that passed for a bed of some sort on that train and I thought, “I can’t go on. I can’t. I don’t want to anymore.” And at that exact moment, someone tried to break in. Some guy on the train tried to break in through the door and that saved me because I became like a tiger. I was a tiger. I literally leapt up I scratched him. I bit him. He fled, but then I went in the corridor and went running up and down and screaming and shouting, “Where is he? Where is he? You fucking asshole!” And all the guards were frantic. Finally I went back inside secure in knowing he wasn’t coming back and I sat back down in there and looked at his blood under my nails. I tasted his blood in my mouth where I had bitten him.
This is a better film version than committing suicide.
Then I shook from head to foot. And I did look up and think, “Yep: Mum.” My mum sent him.
Or even God.
It was. It felt like that. A presence of some sort.
For a specific person - and you are nothing if not “specific,” Frankie - it was a moment of grace.
Yeah. It was. I can tell you every single detail about that incident. I know what he looked like. I know where I was sitting.
I hope someday you run into that awful man and …
Thank him for saving my life. Yeah. Yes. He did save my life. I believed in God really for the first time that night. And it really has never left me.
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