Zoë Wanamaker by Bette Gordon

BOMB 67 Spring 1999
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Zoë Wanamaker in Electra. All photos by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of James Morrison.

Sophocles wrote Electra over 2,000 years ago, but it is a fundamentally modern story. The apparently inescapable cycle of violence set off by inter-family, and civil, war, and the distortions inflicted on people and a whole society by hatred are the issues of our century as well as of Sophocles’s. Electra’s uncompromising insistence on vengeance and the imperative of honoring the innocent dead divides her savagely from her sister Chrysothemis’s spirit of tolerance. Their argument is a moral struggle, with no particular answers, that resonates throughout the world today. The play also examines the less rational, deeply buried complexities that drive our actions as daughters and sons. Sophocles does not judge his characters, doesn’t offer moral solutions, but leaves us to confront the moral processes.

For those of us who haven’t read Electra since high school, here’s the set-up: King Agamemnon, father to Electra and Orestes, sacrifices their sister Iphigenia to appease the gods as he leads the Greeks into war. During his absence, Electra’s mother takes another lover, and upon Agamemnon’s victorious return, they assassinate him. The infant Orestes is sent into hiding by Electra, who remains haunted with love for her dead father. The play opens on the day Orestes, now a man, returns from his exile to exact retribution.

Zoë Wanamaker as Electra is astounding. From the first moment she appears on stage-masked, hair spiked, shrouded by a voluminous army coat—we are electrified. It’s a mythical performance—supported by an accomplished cast—that seems to intuit classical catharsis. Alternating between grief and madness, lucidity and clairvoyance, Wanamaker spins her desire for vengeance into something at once gorgon and childlike. Nowhere have we ever seen such a physical manifestation of grief and anguish. Wanamaker as an actress turns this expression into a state of power.

Bette Gordon Since seeing Electra two weeks ago I haven’t stopped thinking about your performance. What struck me most was its physicality—the energy and power that you bring to Electra! You turn suffering into action, make grief visceral. How did you come to that? Did you know to play it that way from the beginning, or was that something you found along the way?

Zoë Wanamaker No, I didn’t know in the beginning. I had an instinct. This is probably an old story. David Leveaux and I were going to do Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer in London. We met, and halfway through lunch David said, “Have you ever thought of doing Electra?” I said, “No, I find Greek drama very intimidating and I don’t understand it; it’s always been alien to me.” So of course we decided to do it. I know this is crazy, but then I went to see The Flying Angels—what are they called here?—De La Guarda.

BG Oh yes, yes.

ZW It’s slightly different here; they’ve adapted it. But in London it had an energy and drama in which I saw something more: the struggle of a people. The action was also beautiful and had a passion. So when I came to do Electra I drew something from that. And when David and I started to talk about the set for Electra, I said I wanted to fly at some point, somewhat stupidly, because it had nothing to do with the story, but I was inspired by that energy and the incredible drama of it. I saw the suffering in Electra as that of a country’s suffering; I saw joy, life, energy, passion—all that settled inside me. That grief is active, things happen to you physically. I’ve been through it twice now in the space of five years, and it’s fed my performance tremendously, that feeling of loss and impotence, being confronted with your own mortality. And, and all through my life I’ve danced in some form or other. When I was a kid I danced, and when I left school I kept going back to dance classes because acting is ephemeral; you can’t judge how good or how bad you are. But in something as specific as movement you know when you’re getting better, you can see when you’re getting better. In acting you can’t. You can’t see it.

BG It’s so dependent on everything else around you.

ZW It’s everybody else’s taste, not your own. You have your own sensor, but it may not be accurate.

BG That’s so interesting, the experience of loss as physical. Most people internalize it. It was empowering to watch somebody experience a kind of vitality through grief, which I’ve always considered disempowering. The sorrow became concrete and physical—an outward force—and you used it to recast Electra’s life. That’s something that I haven’t seen done. Have you seen other Electra performances?

ZW I saw one directed by Deborah Warner, a wonderful director. It’s one of the reasons I was cagey about doing it, because although I loved that production, I wasn’t so sure of the central performance, envy, maybe in some people’s eyes. It was what we call “a wank.”

BG (laughter)

ZW And I didn’t want to repeat that. I’m also served by Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of Electra. He’s pared the play down to a fishbone, taken away all the extraneous gods and goddesses and the wordy language and condensed it right down to its simplicity. That helps tremendously. Coming to it with this adaptation made it suddenly fresher. Also under David’s direction … We had never worked together before, and we started to share a language.

BG It’s wonderful when that happens with actors and directors.

ZW It’s extraordinary. That had only happened to me a long time before, when I did Piaf in 1978 working with Howard Davies. He managed to concentrate me so that I needed only to think about one thing. It was like being on a tightrope; my concentration was absolute. And that’s a prime rule with acting; it’s really to do with concentration and focus which brings about the most important thing: the simplicity of thought. Through that simplicity you are free.

BG So, was your concentration in Electra on the physicalizing of your inner pain?

ZW No … that came later, but it seemed a given. I am a physical actor anyway. I enjoy what the body can do, I enjoy how somebody’s back can tell you a story even if you cannot see their face.

BG So what was your focus? You could let go of everything else as long as you focused on what?

ZW It’s images you have in your head, or that the director and sometimes the language gives you. David’s interpretation of the language was a revelation to me. When you start working with another intellect the two of you come together, and you interpret. That’s thrilling.

BG The idea of Electra as a child trapped in a woman’s body, was that something that you came to together?

ZW Yes. And, through rehearsals … there’s an anorexic quality about Electra, the singlemindedness of an anorexic or a bulimic. I’ve never been that, but I understand because I have—

BG An obsessive-compulsive thing, too. (laughter)

ZW Yes, I have an obsessive-compulsive nature, but not to that extent. I have a sibling who is, I think, verging on bulimic. So in many ways Electra reminded me of her. On the other side, we have Electra’s sister Chrysothemis. Sophocles sets up a brilliant scenario: he tells you the story and what is going to happen, he presents you with a character who you feel very sorry for, and then another character comes on and gives her point of view and then another character … So as an audience, you’re divided. Through our rehearsals I started to see Chrysothemis as the peacemaker, the one who compromises and learns to live in society. Electra cannot because she has one rule and one rule alone. That is in many ways heroic, but also a pain in the ass, and something of a self-flagellation. It’s self-destructive. But it has this extraordinary terrorist quality, this heroine-like quality.

BG I’m quite attracted to it. I posed that question to myself while I was watching the play, which is, which side would I fall on? Vengeance or tolerance? And I know—vengeance.

ZW You would have a war.

BG It’s seductive. The fantasy of vengeance often gets me through situations.

ZW (laughter) Yeah.

BG I don’t know if I would actually carry out the plan. What side do you think you would fall on?

ZW I don’t know. In my life I’ve always been the peacemaker. That’s why it’s been wonderful. As David said to me, “It’s about time you had a good scream,” and in a way, he’s right. It was time I actually voiced my anger and frustration about not only my parents’ death, but all sorts of things. This play is so timely—Bosnia, Northern Ireland or anywhere you can think of …

BG The Middle East.

ZW What are children who grow up in this atmosphere going to become?

BG Do they internalize the terror—

ZW Or do they become monsters? Like Electra. What is in vengeance for them in the end? Nothing. That’s what the end of the play is about: she has nothing.

BG Right. But it’s still an open question. Sophocles is able, as many of the Greek dramatists are, to open up the questions without providing stock answers.

ZW Exactly.

BG Which is very modern! I think a lot of people were shocked by the relevance of Electra. The children of the perpetrators—the cycles of violence and questions of morality. I remember when I first went to Germany, the way in which young Germans had internalized what had happened in World War II. They had to separate themselves from their history, because how do you live with that?

ZW Yes. What were you doing in Germany?

BG For the films, you know, directors are invited to film festivals. I never had occasion, before that, to get to know young Germans. The conflicts were so interesting, I was attracted to them. I wanted to be in Berlin to experience what these younger people had to carry with them and yet find a way of dealing with it in their lives. That’s quite a heavy legacy.

So, tell me about the coat you wear throughout the production. It’s heavy, old and looks somewhat military. Who thought of that coat for you?

ZW I’ve forgotten, to be perfectly honest. David and myself and Johan Engels, the designer—it was something we all agreed upon.

BG It’s her father, Agamemnon’s, coat.

ZW Yes, exactly. And when we were first doing it in Chichester in the south of England, David bought an army coat that had been used in Dr. Zhivago, an original Russian coat, fully lined, immensely heavy.

BG But that’s the point, it has to be heavy. It’s as heavy as it is because it’s full of tragedy. It’s the burden that she has to carry. It’s also comic; the Beckett tramp is written all over it. Did that give you a license to play with sarcasm?

ZW No, I think sarcasm is in me.

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Zoë Wanamaker in Electra.

BG I found myself chuckling. Not too many people around me were laughing, but I so enjoyed the sarcasm. It’s the last thing she has to hold onto other than her pain, which keeps her father there with her. But that pain coupled with the bit of jokester in her …

ZW The irony of her is quite wonderful.

BG And Claire Bloom as the mother had it a bit, too. That mother-daughter relationship is so interesting. I wonder how you worked with her because the collaboration seemed very strong. You both have hostility but there’s some love in there.

ZW Yes. The whole premise of this play is that anger, revenge, vengeance come from true love.

BG You can’t have one without the other.

ZW It’s out of love that Electra, when her mother Clytemnestra is killed, cries from her gut. It’s a tie, a bond you cannot break no matter how you hate. It’s in the text. “You cannot hate your children no matter how much they hurt you,” is Clytemnestra’s line, and the clue to the whole production. This tremendous love tears families apart. As far as Claire Bloom is concerned … a villain has to become three-dimensional. To play one as just a villain you might as well do 101 Dalmatians and have Cruella de Vil come in. This is deeper than that. This is a real person. And like all real people, she has a point of view and her point of view is that she killed her husband because he killed her child. As an audience you question that, but you understand her dilemma. That’s why Claire could play this role so well. She has a quality about her which is delicate and fragile, and yet you know she’s a killer.

BG Had you worked with her before?

ZW Never. The actress who played it in London was Marjorie Yeats—an actress who has often played downtrodden women. She’s an extraordinary actress.

BG Claire has the shallow, opportunistic thing down.

ZW Claire is very, very beautiful and is known for her beauty. So in many ways she has to transcend that. Which I think she does.

BG The set itself was so powerful. Take the table, the stage within the stage, that you climb on.

ZW We had a lot of discussion. The great thing about working with David was that for the first time ever, I was involved from the very beginning. David had directed Electra before with his company in Japan.

BG Japanese actors?

ZW Yes, he does European and Japanese plays with a company there, he has for the last five years. That’s one of the reasons I did it, because I said to him, “Well, if you’ve done it before than at least you’ve had practice. You can help me.” The first set Johan Engels showed us was this very operatic model, where everything was black but backlit through a door which shot light across the stage. Then he showed us another set which looked like an abattoir.

BG What’s an abattoir?

ZW An abattoir is a slaughterhouse. Johan is South African and he remembered going to a place where they hung people—particularly blacks—a tiled, huge swimming pool-like space where they had a platform on rollers on a track. Very odd. They would hang people and roll the thing out and put the dead bodies on it. He remembers the white tiles and blood. I thought it was too much. So between the three of us, we came to another conclusion. David was very sure about the table: it holds the remnants of a family dinner. Although the myth has it that there was a feast for Agamemnon’s welcome home and then he was given a ceremonial bath. When he got out of the bath Clytemnestra and Aegisthus threw a shirt over him that was sewn up at the neck and arms.

BG I’d almost like to see that.

ZW Yeah, a horrible image … and so that was the story. But David’s scenario was the feast, the Last Supper where everybody was very jolly and then all of a sudden, wham! it all happened and that’s when Agamemnon was murdered. Underneath the table onstage are bits of knives and forks, a few goblets, some broken crockery, the remnants of the feast. And the tattered tablecloth is still there.

BG And then the tilting of the table, almost as if it had been pushed over at the last minute, allowed you this enormous freedom, almost like a slide which brought out Electra’s child-like quality. But the most amazing touch in the whole set is the water dripping from the ceiling. Let’s talk about the drip. (laughter) It’s phenomenal, brilliant. How did they come up with the idea of that dramatic and cloying drip?

ZW That was David’s idea.

BG It’s perpetual. At first you’re not sure: Oh my God, do they know? It’s dripping! Of course they know because the pipe continues to drip. And it’s like time, inexorable time and the tragedies of our lives. As the viewer, you watch the drip sometimes incessantly and then you forget about it and then you come back to it. How did you work with it as an actress?

ZW I loved it because it has conceptual art written all over it. I loved the set because you cannot hear people going in or coming out because of the earth covering the stage. I get physically excited by things like that—I don’t mean I have an orgasm—but the intellectual side of my head is excited by those images because they mean so much and yet they seem so trivial. But for me as an actor, they’re extremely important. The drip is their tears, it’s incessant, a Chinese torture and at the same time, the world crying. Or it’s a leak in the roof. But I find it very powerful.

BG I thought a lot about the Greek chorus. What’s interesting in this play is the three types of women who represent the chorus. Did each one of them give you something different?

ZW Yes, each has their own scenario. David chose very carefully. Two of the women cannot, or will not, speak. And Pat Carroll …

BG She’s phenomenal.

ZW She is Mother, the only one who can speak for them. These women have also suffered through the war and come to this place—a place Electra goes to regularly because she’s not allowed to go to her father’s tomb. As with most choruses, they’re always giving another point of view, or conflicting points of view. But without Electra to keep their grief going, they don’t exist. They need her to be alive; they need her to survive for them.

BG I didn’t think of that. I kept thinking she needed them.

ZW She does, too. So the urgency. The play occurs in one day from dawn till dusk. It’s the most important day because somehow we feel that Electra could die on this day from grief. The premise of the whole rehearsal period was that this was a dangerous day.

BG That if something didn’t change …

ZW She would die. And they need her to stay on.

BG And so that’s what you were working with.

ZW Yes. Pat’s part is not simple, she’s onstage as long as Electra.

BG But the other ones are silent.

ZW One is traumatized by death and the other has been orphaned, all her children are gone—she has nothing. Everyone has a scenario to work on.

BG Do you feel like you have individual relationships with each one?

ZW They’re the women, they’re Electra’s friends. That’s the thing about plays, you can’t be without the actors. The idea of doing a one-person show is quite daunting. I don’t see the point of it. Theater is collaboration. We’ve taken this show to six venues in England. And every theater we went to, the production team, the theater staff, the technical staff were incredible. Then we get to Broadway …

BG Unions.

ZW It’s a disaster. Sound cues are fucked, lighting cues are screwed. It’s astounding. They don’t have commitment to their work. They’re not asked for their artistic commitment but for their technical commitment.

BG And it’s hard for them to engage.

ZW Because their brains aren’t engaged. And this show didn’t have any money to employ an overseer so we had to rely on the staff. And it’s been very difficult to get a clean show. There were 13 sound cues and about 30 lighting cues—which is not much—and it took them a very long time to get it together. It’s a very bad situation. That’s why Broadway is strangled. It’s not the union’s fault—but it’s a stranglehold that doesn’t allow theater such as Electra to come in easily.

BG And it’s not the same in England. The unions don’t control the theaters?

ZW They’re not as powerful. They don’t get their pensions. These guys get their pensions, they get their holidays. If you want to rehearse onstage you have to go through the union. And that’s going to cost you at least $4,000.

BG That’s why Broadway is so bereft.

ZW I think so. You can’t afford it. It’s miraculous this show came to Broadway at all.

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Zoë Wanamaker in Electra.

BG I read that your father, Sam Wanamaker restored the Globe Theatre.

ZW Reconstructed it.

BG From the ground up, literally?

ZW From underground. The story is that he got a bee in his bonnet the very first time he went to London in 1949. He searched London for Shakespeare’s Globe and all he found was a plaque on a brewery wall. He never could understand that. He was an American actor, blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings, so he came to England, and settled in … It wasn’t till I did The Crucible that we really talked about that period in his life. Anyway, he was never somebody to sit around. He always wanted to be doing something, and always had projects. The Globe became one of his major projects. He became obsessed by it. It took 27 years of his life. He fought a lot of battles … He was like an old-fashioned medicine man with his model of the Globe. He would carry it around and try to get money from anybody and everybody so he could reconstruct the Globe as the academics knew it.

BG And he did.

ZW And he did—just before he died. It wasn’t completed, but it rose. It cost him his life in many ways, but it was something he so believed in. He was ridiculed, he was denied, the British never gave him any money, never gave him any support. Most of the money came from America, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. And he could never understand it. Before he died he got angry and felt that it was because he was an American, because he was Jewish. I think that was either out of physical pain or because he knew he was dying and was going to let rip.

BG Well, I wouldn’t blame him. The experience of losing him must have given you a lot to work with.

ZW In many ways he was very much like Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s slate is not exactly clean, not without guilt—like all of us. Dad was not the easiest person to get on with and yet he had the patience of a saint. There were major imbalances in his scales. But he was an incredible force.

BG I can’t imagine what that might have been like to live with.

ZW It’s hard to live with. There were three girls. Four women in his family with his wife. He was extremely selfish and single-minded and compassionate and wonderful. That’s a force.

BG Did you go to battle with him?

ZW Yes, I did. I was lucky because in my early twenties I learned to like my parents. They are human beings and fallible. My other sisters were not so lucky—it’s taken them much longer. Some people never get over that kind of control, the anger it creates, particularly for a woman.

BG As an actress you could lose yourself. You have to leave some of the personal and use some of the personal. That must be very difficult to balance I just how much you want to take and how much you really can’t.

ZW Yep.

BG Because Electra isn’t you.

ZW Exactly. In that way madness lies. I was asked the other day—for some television interview I did which was awful—if I’m a method actress. And I said, “I don’t really know anymore what a method actor is.”

BG Nor do I.

ZW I’m a ragbag of methods for getting someone. I don’t have a path, a way in which I start. A lot of it is instinct and the rest just comes afterwards. There’s no way I can methodically work out a character. I don’t take my characters home in my head. I take them home physically in funny ways because the demands are so physical. It does terrible things to my sex life. Tiredness I take home. I’ve learned now to be boringly disciplined about my time and energy.

BG You can’t be generous. As women we’re not taught to be self-interested, but to be generous. That’s something we have to be careful of.

ZW Well, some women seem to get away with being selfish. You hear about divas. I wish I could be like that.

BG Sophocles was writing about the lack of power for women in a play peopled by women.

ZW Orestes, Electra’s brother, has no knowledge of women. The whole premise of Orestes, as far as this production is concerned, is that he has never known the love of a woman—particularly his sister’s. He walks into a world of women as the so-called soldier, and walks into women’s territory. That’s a shock for him. It’s something he doesn’t know how to deal with.

BG I would have loved to see that explored a little more. He holds back, you can see—

ZW His confusion. He cannot put the lid on this volcano. He doesn’t recognize Electra because she’s such a wreck. It’s astounding to him. The only person who can put the lid on her is the tutor, the messenger, the so-called servant; he’s the only one who can calm her down.

BG He is the surrogate father in whose arms she finally rests at the very end.

ZW Like a bird.

BG It’s such a beautiful moment. And that jump up, the leap up that you do. It’s the moment where you fly. You talked about flying. I just have to ask you, here’s a question for Americans. We’ve been following Prime Suspect

ZW Helen Mirren.

BG Yes, and your performance in the first series is phenomenal. I was inspired after Electra to watch it again, and I have to say that it is an amazing, electrifying performance. How is it different for you working onstage and working in front of the camera?

ZW I find that theater is much more organic. The evening is a better time for me.

BG Rather than 6:00 AM calls.

ZW Yes, when they put the make-up on—which I hate. I mean, Moira, as she was called, was based on an actual woman. The writer of Prime Suspect told me about this character who was then working in a big store in the makeup department. I hid behind the stocking rack so I could watch her. That was a strange thing to do.

BG How long did you do that?

ZW For a couple of days. What is extraordinary about her is that like really good actors, you couldn’t have known from watching her that her husband, or so-called husband, was in jail for armed robbery and battery. That when he was taken away from their apartment, she fought the police physically, tooth and nail. She lied through her teeth. She didn’t know he’d done it, but she was pretty damned sure.

BG She protected him?

ZW I mean, she was a killer. And you would never have known that from what I watched. I also took a manicure course because that’s what the character does. All those little things help sometimes, sometimes they don’t. In that sense I love doing film. If something is well written it’s easy, whatever it is. If something catches your imagination, then it’s simple. So the difference, the only struggle is getting up early in the morning. Filming is exhausting: hours of inert waiting for something to happen and then two seconds of actually cutting to concentration.

BG But the detail you’re describing in terms of the film performance—I suppose film lends itself to those details. Not that theater doesn’t, but they’re magnified in film.

ZW Yes, you can take the minutiae into films because the camera is so close. But you see, not always.

BG Angles!

ZW Yes, angles. There is a technique to film acting which verges on the Garbo idea: think of nothing.

BG Right. Do as little as possible.

ZW Which registers as a lot, or something so detailed and yet registers such power, that’s what Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino do.

BG In Prime Suspect, when your character, Moira, discovers that her husband is in fact guilty of what she deep down suspected he was guilty of—your face registers such enormous depth at that moment. It cracks before our eyes. It reminded me of Electra because you physicalized the pain, took the interior grief, the suffering, and threw it out to us.

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Joan Tewkesbury and I met this summer in Los Angeles: Immediately I was struck by the kinky combination of elements that work in rapid fire in this woman’s brain.

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Originally published in

BOMB 67, Spring 1999

Featuring interviews with James Hyde, Mary Heilmann, Alan Warner, Scott Spencer, Catherine Gund-Saalfield, Cassandra Wilson, Revenge Effect, Elevator Repair Service, Zoe Wanamaker, and A Day in Brasilia. 

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