‘As long as I am on stage, I am alive’: Dame Diana Rigg

Will Bennett 26 October 2017

Two things really stood out during Diana Rigg’s visit to the Union – how down to Earth, practical and confident she is – just like her famous Game of Thrones character – and how much she is dedicated to the craft of the theatre. The conversation didn’t feel like a talk with a Game of Thrones star or even a conversation with a mature actress – indeed, ageism in the industry wasn’t brought up at any point by either the interviewer, the audience or Dame Diana herself.

Instead, the focus of the evening was on Dame Diana’s incarnation as a very experienced stage performer. In her own words, stage provides the most faithful audience and is the best outlet for an actor to secure themselves professionally, both in creative and material terms. She was reminiscing about her younger days, in which any performer had to get involved with productions from different angles to ‘learn by doing’, and shared some of her experienced as an assistant stage manager. She talked about her acting method – defining the difference between yourself and your character, measuring it and covering it – and the importance of a deep knowledge of yourself to be a good actor. She also discussed the sheer extent of trust between performers on stage and identified trust as one of the key factors necessary for any production to work. She elaborated on one of her favourite personal performances, as Medea, and stressed the significance of the ‘perfect trajectory’ of the production as a particular highlight – the play went from a slow start at a small theatre in London to being sold out on Broadway. When asked about advice for younger performers, though, she insisted that she doesn’t give advice as it is too easy to do that and that people need to learn from their own experience.

She was less generous towards the measure and value of TV and film work. She stressed that she owed a great deal to her 60s TV hit, ‘The Avengers’, and that she can never turn her back on it.  She did however acknowledge that she had to be disloyal to it by picking parts drastically different from her strong female lead there to keep growing professionally and creatively. She also described her experience as the iconic Bond girl in ‘On Her Majesty's Secret Service’ with, and I quote, ‘what was his name’. She stressed the advantages of working for a high budget production, at the same time vigorously arguing against the gender pay gap. She mentioned that she was vocal about it from her ‘Avengers’ days, when she ‘made a fuss’ (and a reputation of a difficult to work with person) when she found out that, as a lead actress, she was paid less than the camera man. She also commented on ‘horrible moral rectitude of Hollywood’, strongly condemning the amount of tolerance for sexism and sexual abuse in the industry. Her biggest problem with TV and film work, which she struggled with during filming Game of Thrones among her other projects, is the sheer amount of takes required by the industry of producers and the exhaustion it causes. By her own admission, she is ‘bored and hopeless’ after 3 takes, let alone the 25-30 often required during film production. Her best scenes (judged by other people, as she prefers not to watch her own work), such as her final GoT appearance, are the product of just one or two takes.

Overall, it was an illuminating and enjoyable evening in the company of a very interesting, intelligent and strong woman with extensive experience of the things she was talking about. Witty, somewhat sarcastic but not afraid of the dirty work, she was every inch the Queen of Thorns she so brilliantly portrayed.