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i n t e r v i e w

But you're beautiful, Miss Jones

For decades Frances de la Tour has been denied
the great classical roles that she covets.
Tonight she finally gets her break.
In an exclusive interview for the Guardian,
she talks to Lyn Gardner, Tuesday January 18 2000


Frances and Alan at the Evening Standard drama awards, December 99

BACK IN THE 60s the young Frances de la Tour asked the director Peter Hall if she could play Juliet. Hall's response was blunt. He said it would never happen because she was far too tall and gangly and didn't fit the public's perception of how Juliet should look.
Thirty years later the Royal Shakespeare Company announces that Frances de la Tour will be starring in "Antony and Cleopatra" opposite Alan Bates. A cruel little joke begins to go the rounds: which one of them will be playing the "serpent of the Nile" and which one Antony? It seems that preconceptions take a very long time to break down.
Journalists like to describe Frances de la Tour as having a mournful jolie laide face and an angular body. In fact, at 56, she is a strikingly attractive and confident woman. Like Marilyn Monroe she knows how to make her presence felt. I recently watched her from a distance at a film gala. There were plenty of far more obviously beautiful women present, but it was the red-headed de la Tour that people couldn't take their eyes off. "Who is that incredibly attractive woman?" asked the man next to me.
But she has never fitted the mould of the classically beautiful Shakespearean heroine. She joined the RSC in 1965, straight after graduating from the Drama Centre (the radical breakaway from the Central School of Speech and Drama), and although Peter Brook had the far-sightedness to cast her as Helena in his famous production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," de la Tour never really got the parts she deserved. She should have done brainy Rosalind for the RSC's "As You Like It." Instead she was cast as the bumpkin Audrey.

o Playing Hamlet o

So de la Tour left and went her own way, determined that she shouldn't be strait-jacketed as so many brilliant but not conventionally good-looking actresses had before her into constantly playing the comedienne.
"However insecure I was when I was young, I was certain that I wouldn't go down that route," she explains. "A lot of those women were great artists but they suffered the most limited casting and had to constantly repeat themselves."
Instead she stretched herself, playing Hamlet before such gender-bending experiments were fashionable, and finding a lasting although not always welcome fame for her superb performance playing the lovelorn spinster Miss Jones opposite Leonard Rossiter in "Rising Damp," the 70s TV comedy considered by many to be one of the finest sit-coms of all time. That inevitably brought its own kind of strait-jacket.
De la Tour isn't bitter about the missed opportunities or the parts she never played. After all, she's had some great roles - the raw, big-boned Josie in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and Stephanie, the violinist afflicted by a muscle-wasting disease, in "Duet for One," the play that her then partner, Tom Kempinski, wrote especially for her. And it's not that she's tired of playing second fiddle to others, as she did to her ex-Workers Revolutionary Party colleague Vanessa Redgrave in "When She Danced" or Maggie Smith in "Three Tall Women." In fact, she danced off with the best supporting actress award for the former.
No, what rankles is that de la Tour believes it is the great playwrights such as Shakespeare and Chekhov who offer an actor the chance to grow and she has done so little of them.

o What the actor feels is important o

"I don't think acting is a question of becoming somebody else. It is a question of becoming your fullest self through the part," she says. "It is not an ego trip. You allow the character to enter you, but the moments when you are closest to it are the moments when you are most in touch with yourself. Whenever I give acting classes my approach is the opposite of what is regarded as Method acting. What the actor feels is important, but what the actor feels about the part is not."
But it can be a painful, revealing process - one that de la Tour agrees is almost like being in therapy. Playing Josie in "Moon For the Misbegotten" cured her of the anxiety attacks that had plagued her for years.
"I really wrestled with that part. I was really ashamed of my voice and I tried to compensate by acting big. It was only when I stopped and was myself that it all fell into place. It was like a revelation. The attacks went."
But she believes that the actor can't develop if he or she doesn't get the really good roles. "I've had a wonderful time and had some very nice things said about me for some parts that I've played. But a lot of those roles don't require you to go anywhere other than where you've already been. It is frustrating to have to put a full stop on a role because it doesn't have the breadth to allow you to take it further. However good an artist you are, if you don't fit into people's preconceptions, you won't be given the chance to do it."
Which brings us back to the question of why de la Tour hasn't always got those roles that she yearns for and could so obviously play. After all, even the chance to play Cleopatra was a result of her own efforts and her friendship with director Steven Pimlott. They've been talking about the project for 10 years.

o How about Cleopatra? o

"I didn't sit around on my haunches waiting for the RSC to call and say 'How about Cleopatra?' If I had, I'd still be waiting. Steven and I waited for the right moment to suggest it."
So why hasn't de la Tour got those roles? Was it her radical politics? Or the fact that she became associated with a particular kind of desperate woman, such as Violet in Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings" and Miss Jones in "Rising Damp?" Or was it simply that she wasn't conventionally good-looking enough?
Things get a touch frosty at this point. "I am so hostile to the question," she says politely, and fiercely points out that she has never had eight double chins and that there have been plenty of classical actresses both before her and since who haven't been raving beauties and that hasn't stopped them playing Shakespeare. So if she refuses to accept that she may not have got parts because of her looks, why does she think they escaped her? Her answer seems astonishing: "Maybe people didn't think I was talented."
I find it curious that anyone would prefer to believe people thought her untalented rather than not beautiful, but a straw poll among girlfriends reveals that, given the choice when younger, they'd all have plumped for being beautiful rather than being talented or clever. So maybe de la Tour isn't that different after all.
Certainly she has grown more and more attractive as the years have gone by. As other actresses have lost their looks, de la Tour has grown into hers, although she is still reluctant to be photographed. But when the conversation warms up again, she concedes that being told you're too gangly to play Juliet does feed your anxieties.

o Confidence is very sexy o

"You begin to believe that maybe you couldn't do it. So instead you long to play unusual parts, and you learn to do them very well, and that feeds the preconception. These are the lonely people, the misbegotten. Then you start not bothering to do your hair or make-up and you get more acclaim for showing these people warts and all, and less chance of getting the roles you really want.
"I've never understood all this talk about my looks. But Tom [Kempinski] once said something interesting to me. He said, 'Whatever nonsense people write about you, there is a truth in it somewhere. What they say about you is not about what you are giving out - it's about something inner about you that they've spotted.' Maybe without realising it I did exude something."
What she exudes now is confidence, and confidence is very sexy. This is a woman in her prime, a woman absolutely ready to play Cleopatra.
Many years ago when de la Tour was at drama school, a friend overheard the principal telling the new intake about the year above. "In that year," he said, "we have a girl called Frances de la Tour. She is very beautiful, but she doesn't know it."
She didn't, but she does now.
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