A candid character
PUBLISHED: 15:46 13 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013
Born in Essex, the daughter of an Army office, actress Juliet Stevenson has strong views on politics and her profession, which she shares here with Paul Simon
KELVEDON-born actress Juliet Stevenson is very hard to pin down, yet once you get hold of her she is far from elusive. Indeed, she is disarmingly honest.
The many roles she has performed have certainly meant that she has not been easy to define in terms of her career.
Her diverse ability and the versatility of her performances are clear, whether in the theatre (including Burn This with John Malkovich), in films (such as Truly, Madly, Deeply where she starred opposite Alan Rickman) or on TV (in the wonderful The Politician's Wife with Trevor Eve among others).
She has recently been on track in the big screen adaptation of Suffolk-based writer Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, also featuring Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent. She performs the role of an intelligent but very reserved mother.
Did such a quiet character present any particular issues? 'Yes,' Juliet recalls in a hushed-husky voice, 'it was quite a challenge, but I liked it a lot. She has a strong narrative of her own, yet remains largely silent about it within her own family.
'She was something of an enigma when I researched her, but of course you can't play an enigma - you have to piece together her private reality. But that was seldom the focus of the film. Indeed, women over the age of about 35 cease to be at the centre of plays or films, which is a source of real frustration and sadness.'
Juliet is coming to the end of filming The Secret of Moonacre. In doing so she had been busily commuting between London and Hungary. 'I love work and can't do without it, but the first priority is always the children (she has two children and two stepchildren with her partner, anthropologist Hugh Brody).'
Born in Kelvedon in 1956, her own childhood was also pretty mobile. 'My father was an Army officer and always moving about, so I never had roots. I left Essex when I was a few weeks old. We moved to Germany about six weeks after I was born.'
The personal experiences of living as an Army child did inculcate within her a clear perception of right and wrong, something that has influenced her professionally. 'We were living in Malta and at that time it was a very poor island. The poverty was quite evident and I recall being really shocked at the unfairness of it. Equally, I was aware of the hierarchies in the Army, and so I think I developed an early sense of injustice.'
Juliet's mother has clearly been a positive impact on her. 'My mother was, or rather still is, a very liberal and progressive woman. She didn't work professionally but got involved in the community, teaching riding to disabled children.'
With these influences running through her genes, Juliet has been an unapologetic supporter of the underdog, including the treatment of asylum seekers and the plight of the Palestinian people (what Juliet describes as the most overlooked tragedy of our time).
So is she worried she might be dismissed as a 'luvvie'? 'It certainly opens you up to the right wing press, but I can't worry about that. If I did I would be silenced or censored by it and they would be holding sway even more than they already do.'
Juliet acknowledges the influence of work in sharpening her awareness of such issues. Indeed, unlike many acting types who seem to live in a bubble separated from the rest of us, Juliet's real and acting lives have had a profound influence upon each other. 'When I was rehearsing my part in Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorman's intense and edgy play about a former torture victim and her torturer, I had two influential encounters. Firstly, I met with Chilean refugees who had been tortured under Augusto Pinochet. Secondly, I met Helen Bamber, founder of the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture.
'It was a life-changing experience for me. Since then, the charities and non-governmental organisations I have principally tried to support are those helping people who come to this country seeking asylum and needing to repair their lives.'
It is perhaps unsurprising that The Politician's Wife has political views. She has made it known that she generally voted for the Labour Party, but how does she feel that 10 years of Labour government has impacted on her own profession? 'It has certainly been better than its Tory predecessor, quite considerably so. Yet, I have also been disappointed. The loss of a specific minister for the arts, now that it has all been lumped in with media and sport, is a shame. As is the failure to create imaginative ways of supporting the British film industry, which is still very, very under-resourced.'
And Juliet is incensed by the forthcoming London Olympics. 'Why has the government taken money for the Olympics from the arts budget? Why can't they take it away from defence or road-building?'
And with that Juliet is rushing off to pick up one of her children and, in all honesty, cannot be pinned down any longer.