Penelope Wilton, star of both stage and screen, possessor of a CV of prestigious productions as long as your arm, visited the dark confines of the Dixon drama studio to answer an array of questions about her career, the way she works and her influences. Coming across as an unpretentious and interesting speaker, Penelope presented a rare opportunity to uncover the workings of a mind accustomed to performing across a huge amount of roles and methods of direction.
Her own methods for performance, however, seemed entirely straightforward. When asked whether she had any particular rituals before coming on set or on stage, we were given a quietly asserive ‘no’. Quizzed on how she controlled any nerves or stage fright, Penelope was a little more revealing about her approach: “when you look worried, the audience tends to worry for you.. the audience tend to sympathise with the character on stage”. A simple concept, you may think, but nonetheless this revealed a sensitivity to the reactions of the audience and a commitment to performing well that shunned the psychobabble of method acting and the pretentions of the Hollywood elite. She does not ‘find her centre’ or even use breathing or voice exercises (though she says many of her colleagues do) to prepare for a big performance. Instead, actually getting on with the job is preferred. How refreshing.
This very direct approach could be attributed to her early work with none other than Harold Pinter. On the subject of the great playwright, she said “he had a way of compacting what he wanted to say into very few words”, and mentioned the clarity with which he directed his cast. These traits seemed to have rubbed off on Wilton, who prefers working close to the text, and, more specifically, with their writers. Experience with Pinter, and her role in his play Betrayal (which she considers one the most influential) however, did not preclude the odd hiccup in her career . Screaming was one notable disaster, a TV production which involved a love triangle, a convoluted plot, and some terrible writing. After being offered a second series, she said no.
There is a lighter side to this highly experienced stage actress. Despite there being a lack of dramatic momentum in TV and film, or “energy” as she would put it, Penelope Wilton has starred in numerous efforts for the big and small screen. The TV version of The Borrowers, the sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles and most recently Calendar Girls are three high profile departures from her other roles, which have a backbone of Shaw, Shakespeare, Pinter and Chekov. Her next screen role? The zombified mother of Simon Pegg’s comic hero in Shaun of The Dead. The climax of this performance? Getting her head blown off by a shotgun. It appears that although she prizes the energy and spontanaeity of working with a good thatrical cast and director, seeing it “breathe” and develop, there is also an element of the absurd or fantastic that she enjoys in the disjointedly directed world of film. She enthusiastically told us of the impressive effects of the zombie cast of Shaun of the Dead, rebuked someone for using the term ‘low budget’ (“it’s actually very high, and quite a clever film”), and laughed self deprecatingly at the notion of seeing her own head vaporised. Yes, be you an undergraduate writing and performance student, or an internationally respected actress, there will always be a longing to take the odd foray into the world of shambling around as one of the walking dead.
There is probably more freedom to Wilton’s choice of roles, given her impressive track record in the theatre, yet she mentioned that there are very few roles written for a woman as she gets older. This does not mean she is always unsuccessful, but in her own words, at 58 “it is hard”.
Yet, it seems that there is much more momentum in her career yet, and though Penelope made it clear that her profession can be at times difficult, she proved to be an inspiring speaker on a subject that has limitless possibilities.
Penelope Wilton in TV and film:
Shaun of the Dead (2004, filming)
Calendar Girls (2003)
Lucky Jim (2003)(TV)
Victoria & Albert (2001) (TV)
Bob and Rose (TV series)
The Whistle Blower (2001) (TV)
Wives and Daughters(1999) (TV)
Tom’s Midnight Garden(1999) (TV)
The Deep Blue Sea (1994) (TV)
The Borrowers (1993) (TV)
The Secret Rapture (1993)
Screaming (1992) (TV)
Cry Freedom (1987)
Ever Decreasing Circles (1984) (TV)
King Lear (1982) (TV)
Othello (1981) (TV)
Talking Heads 2(1998) (TV)