Interview: Zoe Wanamaker

Iravati Guha 12 March 2012

Zoe Wanamaker talks to Iravati Guha about Madam Hooch, My Family, and views on cosmetic surgery

Zoe Wanamaker is a British-American actress who has had a significant presence on stage, performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in films and on television. Most famous for her depiction of Madam Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and for Susan Harper in the sitcom My Family.

Wanamaker has won numerous awards for acting, including two Olivier Awards for Best Actress. Wanamaker was born in New York to a family of Russian-Jewish ancestry, but has lived almost all of her life in the UK, gaining British citizenship in 2000 when she received a CBE.

After attending a question and answer session at the Cambridge Union Society on Tuesday, Zoe Wanamaker settled down with a glass of vodka tonic and spoke to The Cambridge Student about her experiences of and opinions about the world of acting.

Your father was a prestigious actor, producer and director. What did he think of you entering the industry?

He got very worried. Both my parents were actors. They both knew that this was something that was going to come up again and again. I think that it was after my experience at Hornsey College of Art where I tried to be a fine artist, which I decided was such a lonely profession, that I decided to become an actor. I was persuaded to go to a shorthand typing course because they knew I’d be out of work a lot and they wanted me to be able to live and earn money somehow. But yes, they were not happy.

Is there any role you’ve played that you’re most proud of?

No. You always feel that you can do better. There are characters that you fall in love with and that you enjoy playing very much I think, and Elektra was one. But I can’t say there’s one I’m most proud of; I really love doing all of them, actually. Beatrice in Much Ado is another example. I can’t think of anything else. All of them are very varied… I’ve also played Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and I love playing her.

Do you feel more comfortable acting on stage or on screen?

I think I feel more comfortable with the process of acting on stage because there is a gestation period – meaning that is a rehearsal – where you work with the other actors, and you discuss and you have to formulate and digest, whereas filming is very much ‘you’re on your own’.

Have you read the Harry Potter books and if yes, what do you think of them?

I haven’t read all of them. I stopped at number three because I then I had to learn the script. I loved them, the first one in particular. It was my kind of book. When I was young I always read fairy stories like Mervin Peake – anything that was slightly fantastical, I was into.

And did you relate to the character you were playing (Madam Hooch?)

Oh yes, she was a wizard! Why not relate to her? I think the thing about Madam Hooch is that she was an eagle.

You’ve worked on the set of My Family for roughly a decade. How do the actors relate to one another off-screen?

You grow to become good friends. You become very close friends, but it’s like everything… when you finish a job, you move onto something else. They’re all doing something else now, and I don’t know what they’re doing.

Is Robert Lindsay as funny off-screen as he is in the show?

No. . He’s also a bit of a hypochondriac, and self admittedly so. There’s always a pain, or a drama, or he’s got some terrible disease. But he does make me laugh, and I’m very fond of him. He and I knew each other from way back; we’d known each other twenty years before we’d started My Family.

When you first started acting, you said that television was about being pretty. Do you still think that this is a problem with the acting industry?

No. I think when you’re young it helps. But I don’t think it’s a problem, not in this country anyway. I think in America there are very few unattractive actresses who are featured in a film. I can’t think of any. Actresses, I’m talking about. I don’t know of one… do you? Can you think of one? I can’t think of an unattractive actress. Whereas in this country, we have Coronation Street, and there are real people on it, who are often not very attractive. That would never have happened in America. When I go to America and I watch daytime television, the women have had so many procedures done to their faces.. it’s another world. Thank god in this country we have real people on television.

So what do you think of the rise of cosmetic surgery

I think it’s great. It’s great, but when people look like they’ve come out of a zoo, it’s a different thing. They can look like the back of a baboon, that’s what can happen. Yeah, do it, but do it with somebody who’s an artist. On The Only Way Is Essex, you look at the people and they don’t look real… It was as if David Attenborough had found another species when I first saw it. You could have a programme about those people, about what’s going on. I think Cassandra from Doctor Who is brilliant writing – she’s had so many face lifts that she has to have people moisturise her skin – I thought that was hystericable (hystericable – did you hear me say that?). So that’s what I feel about it: it’s when it becomes grotesque that it’s disturbing. You don’t enjoy getting old, but it’s inevitable.

On a rather different note: what does your Russian-Jewish heritage mean to you?

It means a lot – but that’s all, if you see what I mean. I was not brought up Jewish; I was brought up ‘Jew-ish’. My parents were very liberal and tried to do their best in a very liberal way. We were three girls and we were all sent to very different schools to fit our temperament: I went to a co-education progressive school, my youngest sister went to a Lycee Francais, and my eldest sister went to a grammar school. They were trying to accommodate our different personalities.

They sent one of your sisters to a Lycee Francais? Why?

They knew that Europe was going to open up, and they wanted her to be able to experience learning a different language. Also the Lycee Francais in London was very good, and she became a very clever girl.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I’d still like to be working, and I’d still like to have fun. That’s what I look forward to. I have no other ambitions but to keep learning.

Iravati Guha