Greta life: Three decades of Miss Scacchi

Greta Scacchi will be in the new production of The Glass Menagerie at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Greta Scacchi will be in the new production of The Glass Menagerie at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
  • Greta Scacchi came to symbolise 80s glamour. Ahead of her debut on the stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse, she tells Phil Penfold why at 55 she’s only just escaped the pigeonhole.
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She was one of the most glamorous actresses to grace the screens of the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties. Always impeccably dressed, make-up perfect and a little smile always at the corner of her mouth, she notched up an impressive list of films and TV productions behind her. For Greta Scacchi, read “style”.

The lifestyle was pretty good as well. Premieres, luxury trailers on set, appearances in places like the Cannes Film Festival, which is where, in fact, we last met, a couple of decades back, and where she delivered a couple of wonderfully quick put-downs to a couple of members of the press who were being slightly forward and a little impertinent. Miss Scacchi was (and is) nobody’s fool.

Actress Greta Scacchi taking part in rehearsals for Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie at West Yorkshire Playhouse  Picture: Manual Harlan

Actress Greta Scacchi taking part in rehearsals for Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie at West Yorkshire Playhouse Picture: Manual Harlan

But time marches on and today we are a long way from tea on the terrace in the south of France. Instead we are in a neat office, in a rather splendid old Victorian building in London’s Pimlico. There are some rather posh-looking houses on one side of a main road, and a large (and very well kept) estate of multi-storey houses on the other. Downstairs on this impossibly wet Tuesday afternoon are young hopefuls all trying for places with the Vienna English Theatre, and in the main area things are progressing very nicely with a new revival of Tennessee Williams’ first major stage hit, The Glass Menagerie, a co-production between Headlong Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

On a break from rehearsals, Scacchi appears at ease. She’s now in her middle 50s, and has a grown-up son and daughter. She lives in Sussex, not Los Angeles, and the lifestyle is far from movie-star pampering. There’s no five-star catering here, Scacchi has been given a £20 note from the company petty-cash tin, and when we finish she’s off to a little inexpensive Italian that she’s found nearby.

“I’m thrilled, and very excited about working with this team. It’s very much a collaborative effort, an ensemble play, and a role that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Scacchi plays Amanda Wingfield, an impoverished, middle-aged Southern Belle who leads a hand-to-mouth existence, with her disabled daughter and would-be-poet son, Tom. In some of the publicity material, there is a list of actresses who have played the part over the years, and the names include Laurette Taylor, Gertrude Lawrence, Joanne Woodward, Katherine Hepburn, Jessica Lange….

Greta rolls her eyes, grins hugely, and says: “No pressure there then! I think that I first saw the play on stage, when I was about 16 or so, when we were living in Perth, and it impressed me then. Hugely. But then I saw a lot of theatre, I was already hooked.

“My mother Pamela was dancer and more often than not I’d go with her to rehearsals, and be sat in the corner and told not to make a squeak of noise. Later I watched her perform at the Royal Opera House. Eventually the penny dropped that it was probably a lot cheaper to buy a ticket and for me to see the ballet, than pay a babysitter!”

By the time she was approaching her teens, Scacchi was memorising favourite lines from her copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.

“My favourite plays were A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. I’d get my stepfather to fetch the book down, and I’d ask him to open it up at random in any of those four plays and to give me a line. I could tell him who was saying it, the lines before and after and I didn’t think that very odd at all.”

She would love to play Gertrude, in Hamlet, quickly adding, “if anyone would like to pick up that broad hint, then thank you very much.”

Scacchi started her theatrical studies at the University of Western Australia, made her first impact in an Edward Bond play, Early Morning and then, in 1977, returned to the UK to attend Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where contemporaries included Miranda Richardson and Amanda Redman. Her screen debut came a couple of years later, in an episode of Bergerac. Given that the series is still being repeated has she ever stumbled over that particular segment? She looks a little surprised.

“They’re repeating them?” she asks, “Incredible. No, I never have, and if I did happen upon it, I’d switch it off. Immediately. I can’t stand watching myself. Have you ever heard your voice on a tape-recorder? Of course you have – and it’s alien, isn’t it? It’s very disconcerting.

“It’s the same with watching your image, only 10 times worse. You want to change what you’ve done, improve it. But that is impossible. So it is a relief to do theatre, which is of the moment. You have the attention of the audience, and that is all you need. You cannot, of course, predict what the critics are going to say, but then they live in their own little world sometimes.

“I do believe that actors get better with age. Truly. You get more and more experience, you have an accumulation of life’s events. What is rare for us women, however, is a role (like Amanda) where you can plumb the depths of the character, and peel off all the layers. Women of a certain age are, I find it so sad to say, very often dismissed and excluded from stories. Dancers have a time clock, and they eventually have to stop. Actors, I think, get better – it’s just that a lot of us are not allowed to show it. Perhaps the good news is that there are, and it is happening slowly, more and more female playwrights, and they are creating good roles for women. There are still not enough”.

She believes that Amanda is such a challenge because of the depth of character. She has positive and negative traits in equal measure and while it’s tempting, it’s impossible to write her off as ‘a witch’.

“She’s far more than that. Nothing is black and white, but there’s a cloying protectiveness about her. I do have a sense of her relationship with her children being more than a little magnetic, in that opposite attract, and that they can’t live with each other, but that equally they can’t live without each other. There’s attraction here, and also repulsion. They are fighting the predicament of the poverty that they are in.

“I’ve researched the play, of course, and also Tennessee Williams, and there are huge parts of it that are clearly autobiographical and based on his own experience, which makes it all the more fascinating. It is very, very close to the bone. It was first produced in 1944, transferred to Broadway and became an instant hit – but it changed the face of theatre forever. He truly was innovative in so many ways, and he was writing at the time when the art form was changing, and convention was being turned on its head. For me, he’s up there with Pirandello. Miller, Beckett….

“And I have to say that the other three guys in the cast, the youngsters, are terrific. You will put that in, won’t you? Absolutely first rate. And this all adds up to the fact that yes, I am thoroughly, absolutely, enjoying myself. It has taken an inordinate amount of time for me to be able to shake off my old ‘image’. Yes, I was ‘pigeon-holed’ for a long, long time. But things begin to change when you become a mum.”

Her daughter Leila (also an actress) is now 23, her son Matteo is 17. And she and Leila have already worked together, in a 2014 production of The Seagull.

She says proudly “and she was BLOODY good, as well!”

She concentrated on her children for several years, putting all sorts of offers to one side. “There were some good plays that I could have done, but it came down to my thinking ‘Do I really want to be rehearsing, then in a theatre every night from six o’clock, and then maybe away on a long tour, when I could be with my youngsters as they grew up?’ That wasn’t in any way justifiable. So yes, I shelved a lot of things.”

These days, she’s being offered good strong roles – none more strong than Bette Davis in the stage play Bette and Joan, which was a huge success both in the West End and on tour. “I never met her, but I oh so wish that I had… when I was offered that part I sat and watched all her films, on the trot.

“I knew that she had a fearsome reputation, that she was crabby, and argumentative, and that she was a perfectionist. But she also had immense courage, and a huge heart, and she dared to be different and to stand up for herself in a time when Hollywood actors had to town the studio line….”

And now, before the break is over, we share a brolly as Greta has to nip along to the local post office to post a parcel.

“It’s got all my son’s favourite things – it’s his birthday. The crisps he likes, things like that. He’s in Australia, and this might just remind him of his old mum.”

No-one gives her a second glance. The chameleon-like Miss Scacchi has been absorbed into the background. And that’s the way she likes it.

• The Glass Menagerie, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, September 12 to October 3. 0113 213 7700,