Tomorrow, Juliet Stevenson will make her acting debut in Leeds. Though it turns out it’s a city she knows well. “I’ve never performed there but I have big connections with Leeds because I have family there,” she says.
“My eldest brother went up to Leeds University when he was 18 and fell in love with the place and stayed there, married there and had his children there. He very sadly died, but his family are all there and they have kids of their own, so Leeds is quite a big part of our family life and I’ve been going up there for years. I love the city and I’m also a big fan of Yorkshire.”
She’ll be taking the stage at the resplendent Leeds Town Hall to co-narrate War Horse alongside its author Sir Michael Morpurgo. They will be accompanied by music performed by the orchestra of Opera North and St Peter’s Singers.
Stevenson is a friend of Morpurgo’s and joined him in a similar rendition of War Horse earlier this year at Coventry Cathedral. “It’s very good timing to be doing this now with the recent centenary of the Armistice.
“It’s a very moving piece and it can appeal to all ages. I’ve taken my children to see the stage show and I read the book to them when they were younger, and this concert is a really beautiful version of the story,” she says. “Michael has an amazing gift as a storyteller and he has such an imaginative take on history.”
Stevenson’s own story is an intriguing one, too. Her father was in the Army and she had an itinerant childhood brought on military bases in Germany, Australia and Malta, before returning to England. “It was a strange childhood, although you don’t really think of it like that when you’re a child.”
She was a bright pupil and was all set to go to university and study English and drama when she had something akin to a ‘eureka’ moment. “I suddenly thought ‘what am I doing? I don’t want to read this as an academic subject, I want to be an actor.’”
She wrote to Rada “because it was the only drama school I’d ever heard of” and to her surprise was offered a place. “I came to acting not by watching movies or going to the theatre, but through reading and wanting to be the person who gave life to these words and communicate that to an audience. I just had that very strong instinct.
“I still remind myself of that, we’re conduits for other people’s stories and they pass through us to audiences, and I’ve never stopped loving it, it’s an amazing privilege to tell human stories and to help people connect with each other.”
Timothy Spall and Anton Lesser were among her peers at Rada, from where she joined the RSC pretty much straight away. “I was at the bottom of the rung on an eight-week contract replacing someone who had unfortunately broken their leg.”
She ended up staying there for the best part of a decade. “I hadn’t wanted to be doing theatre for years but it was just an amazing opportunity and I learnt so much, they grew me like a greenhouse plant. It wasn’t just Shakespeare, a lot of the best new plays came to the RSC in those days, plays by people like David Hare and Howard Brenton.”
It was, she says, an exhilarating experience. “When I first stepped out on the stage at Stratford-upon-Avon aged 20 it was almost indescribable. In that first year Glenda Jackson came up to do Cleopatra, with Peter Brook directing, and I was running around in that production playing Iras. I couldn’t believe I was on the same stage as Glenda Jackson.”
The likes of Alan Rickman, David Suchet, Sir Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Pryce and Zoe Wanamaker were also all in the company during this period. No wonder she says it was an “incredible place to learn.”
Stevenson was already making a name for herself when in 1991 she starred alongside Alan Rickman in Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply. “We didn’t realise it would be quite so big. I’d worked with Anthony quite a bit by then on his brilliant radio plays and we’d started to connect in quite a big way. I loved his work and felt I instinctively understood it.”
He’d been commissioned to write a film by the BBC for its Screen Two series. He said he would do it, as long as he could direct it, too.
“Normally, when you’re on set there’s lots of technicians and you wait till they are ready and then you walk on. But Anthony was different, so when we had difficult emotional scenes or larking around being deliriously happy he would generate an atmosphere that was conducive to whatever we had to come up with.”
Working with Alan Rickman, she says, was also a joy, too. “Alan was like a big brother to me, so we had all that history and he would boss me around in that most loving way and I would resist and eventually give in. He was a mentor to me.”
She watched the film again recently having not seen it for many years. “When you have that history between actors you can take short cuts and play that familiarity and that intimacy without forcing it.
“I’m usually horrified when I watch myself in a film because you see all the mistakes. But with Truly, Madly, Deeply I don’t feel that, I think it was quite a liberated piece of work. I’m thrilled that it still speaks to people. I still get people coming up to me sometimes and telling me they watched that film when their husband died, or their mum, or a child. It seemed to speak to people and for people and that’s what I’m proud of because you want to be useful. That’s my main desire as an actor,” she says.
“Grief is usually portrayed with a quiet dignity but it’s not really like that. We wanted to portray grief with all the anger and depression that can come with it. It was such a whimsical idea of a ghost coming back, and to make it work you had to root it in something very real and raw.”
Since then Stevenson has appeared in several acclaimed TV series including Accused, The Hour and The Enfield Haunting. The 62 year-old has enjoyed a successful career spanning nearly 40 years but feels there remains a paucity of interesting roles for older actresses.
“Women represent more than fifty per cent of audiences and we need to be telling their stories and not just the stories of 25 year-olds. Women in their older years have great narratives to tell and experiences to share and we really need to remember that because it’s after the age of 40 when work for most actresses starts to fall away..
“It’s not about being better, or good or bad, it’s about having that experience and relationship with the world, and life, and being more represented. There’s so much wealth to be drawn on if we included women more.”
War Horse: The Story in Concert, Leeds Town Hall, tomorrow at 4pm. For ticket details call 0113 376 0318.