Talking Point: At 65, was Liz Smith really too old to play a resident in an old people's home?

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The Independent Culture
In view of the news that the actress Liz Smith has been dropped from a production because a fellow actor deemed her too old for the part, we asked member of the profession: are older actors and actresses discriminated against?

Margaret Robertson, Actress

'The problem arises with a generation of directors weaned on TV naturalism. You audition in a tiny room and they see how old you look offstage. This has nothing whatsoever to do with how you appear onstage. It's a mental thing. An actor can shed 20 years. To be able to capture innocence and cope with the verse you probably need to be 50 to play Juliet. But everyone insists on casting teenagers and wonder why they fail.'

Michelle Guish, Casting Director

'I've never come across discrimination against older actresses. All that you have to do is make sure they're not infirm. If it's a good part it's easy to cast because there are so many of them out there. Look at Thora Hird, she's never out of work. Trouble is, there are so many more parts for men. There's the rub.'

Sir Ian McKellen, Actor

'I remember doing Shaw's You Never Can Tell, in which the part of Walter the old waiter was played by an actor in his eighties. I was aghast at how younger members of the cast were impatient with a man who couldn't work flat-out for eight hours and need extra rehearsals. Of course when it came to the performances he acted everyone else right off the stage. One of the best things about the job is being able to work in harmony and in intimacy with people across the generations. This is rarely true of other jobs. At best there is respect in both directions.'

Cherry Morris, Actress

'I'm not certain that age is any more relevant today than before. Shakespeare says art should hold the mirror up to nature. Modern plays don't show older women because they re undervalued by society. There are some great female roles for older actresses in classical theatre, but they are far outnumbered by male ones.'

Sheila Hancock, Actress

'It isn't just a maybe that older actresses are discriminated against; it's a fact. As you get older you get less and less work unless you play younger than your years. What is really important is the implication this has for society as a whole: if women disappear from your screens as they get older you start to accept it in real life. What you're losing is all the experience and wisdom that older women have to offer. I was turned down for the part of the wife of my real-life husband in A Year in Provence, because it was thought I was too old. It sounds like sour grapes, but that's the sort of perception you're up against.

(Photograph omitted)

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