i n t e r v i e w
But you're beautiful,
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
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.
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 actor feels is important o
"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
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.
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."
about Cleopatra? o
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
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
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.
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."
is very sexy o
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.
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
"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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