Zoë Wanamaker Talks Theater Here and Abroad

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“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

That’s Zoë Wanamaker talking during a short lunch break. She’s in a small music room where there’s an upright piano and a long worktable at which she’s eating from a plastic container. On prominent display is her oval face with its ski-slope nose. There’s the familiar piquant smile. Her hair is pixie-ish, and she’s in black rehearsal clothes.

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Zoe Wanamaker Photo by Nicky Johnston
Zoë Wanamaker
Photo by Nicky Johnston

Though she’s direct about the terror, it becomes increasingly clear she’s also exhilarated. “It’s scary. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, but I like to do what I’ve never done before. They asked, ‘Would I do it?’ No audition. Just ‘Would I do it?’ I’m excited by the idea of doing it.”

The “it” is Zorba!, the musical based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek, which runs as part of City Center’s Encores! series this month with book by Joseph Stein, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and directed by—in a return to the series where, among other things, he guided the still running ChicagoWalter Bobbie. Let’s just say that Wanamaker’s enthusiasm throughout our exchange matched the other exclamation points thrown around here.

She’s so eager to do this musical. to play aging innkeeper Madame Hortense, that she turned down the next season of PBS’s Mister Selfridge—on which she plays the real-life Princess Marie de Bolotoff, a White Russian hanger-on who, per Wanamaker’s research, “defrauded” everybody.

So I ask if she was saying no to a salary that would have been more than she’d make from Encores! She gives a meaningful look, a look that clearly means: I’m doing this because it’s more important to me, and why would you even suspect I’d think otherwise? She’d already expressed delight with Zorba! by telling me, “I’m doing a number where boys are picking me up.”

Throwing herself into the role, which isn’t unusual for actors of her caliber, she began working with vocal coach Sam Kenyon to “get my voice together.” Of course, she’s done musicals before. When she was starting out in English repertory she did several—Cabaret, Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate, to name a few. That’s what actors did in now-fading English rep: everything.

But much more often, Wanamaker has gone the non-singing route—and on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in America and raised in England where dad Sam Wanamaker emigrated as a result of the ‘50s Red Scare, she has dual citizenship. “Producers this side of the pond don’t have to worry about getting me a green card,” she offers. And work here Wanamaker has, appearing on Broadway four times—Piaf, Loot, Electra and the recent Awake and Sing revival. She was Tony-nominated each time. Not a bad record.

A veteran of audiences here and there, she’s quick to acknowledge there are differences—big ones. “British audiences have to be wooed,” she says. “They sit back. They’re absolutely appreciative, but nobody stands up. Sometimes they clap with their hands over their heads. I’ve stood up. That’s the child in me. Here, [audience members] are sitting forward.” As she notes that, she sits forward in demonstrated anticipation.

Her Zorba! gig also underlines her closely scheduled assignments. Not even a few weeks have elapsed since she faced English customers, playing the poet Stevie Smith in the revival of Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie at London’s Hampstead Theatre, which coincidentally is right across the street from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. The revered institution is where she trained.

Stevie is a two-hour-plus two-hander. Was she exhausted by it? “We closed on Saturday, I packed on Sunday, flew on Monday and had dinner with Walter Bobbie on Tuesday,” she replies with eyes wide. Asked about the difficulty in shedding one role to take on another, she says, “I haven’t had time to mourn [Stevie] yet…Every actor I know, when a play closes and it’s [the next] Monday at six thinks, ‘I should be at the theater.’”

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In full disclosure, I spend close to two months a year in London, and I’ve seen Wanamaker in almost every production she’s done—Stevie a rare exception. I mention that her Katrin in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children with Judi Dench is the best one I’ve ever witnessed. My favorite scene was the one where she sat on a roof and beat a drum. “I had to jump off the roof,” she recalls, “but hang there first.” She rubs her arm, suggesting she still feels the pain.

I tell her the Beatrice she played to Simon Russell Beale’s Benedick in Nicholas Hytner’s take on Much Ado About Nothing, where the two love-hate characters spend time arguing in a pool, is another favorite. She tells me that Hytner called it the favorite production of his 10-year tenure. I bring up All My Sons, which she did in the West End with David Suchet, whom she calls “my soul mate.” She was also in Suchet’s Inspector Poirot episodes as the often-mystified mystery writer Ariadne Oliver.

I inform her that in 1997 when the rebuilt Globe opened on the south bank of the Thames—her father, then only recently deceased, was the major force behind it—I was at one of the initial ceremonies and heard her deliver the “O, for a muse of fire” speech from Henry V. I ask if she’s still involved, and she refers to herself as “an honorary whatever.”

zorbaGetting back to All My Sons, the Arthur Miller play directed in that instance by Howard Davies, with whom she often works, I ask if she’ll talk about directors? She’s ready to do that and says, “All it is is about language, a common language you can find that opens doors for you. It’s finding the key, finding how to unlock a character.”

In the earlier days of Encores!, actors were required to carry scripts because, no matter how elaborate the staging is, the presentations are considered concert readings. Recently, that ended. So as she gears up for Zorba!, I wonder if Wanamaker has had to transition from Stevie Smith to Madame Hortense so quickly that she’ll use the three-ring-binder script ploy. “No, I’m not carrying my script,” she retorts, shocked to be asked. “Nobody else will be.”