Life after Duckface: Anna Chancellor tackles Strindberg

Since Hugh Grant dumped her at the altar, Anna Chancellor has specialised in strong female roles. Tonight she tackles Strindberg.
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Anna Chancellor opens our interview with a comment about Hugh Grant, the man who left her standing at the altar in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The hugely successful romantic comedy cast her for ever after in the role of "Duckface", the jilted lover with an acid tongue, and she knows she will always be asked about it. She is also trying to evade questions about herself and her latest part, as Tekla in August Strindberg's Creditors, which opens tonight at the Donmar Warehouse in London's Covent Garden.

Tekla is a woman torn between two men, and Chancellor has spent the weekend in Dorset, getting some head space before the opening night. She has been acting since primary school, but has the nerves of a first-timer.

"Even talking about Creditors is making me nervous," she confides. "It's an exposing thing being on stage. It's a high-voltage thing, even if it doesn't always look like that from the audience."

She says she doesn't enjoy talking about herself, though she is very chatty, a little gossipy, and has a breezy and honest demeanour. "I feel so bored talking about myself. Sometimes you just don't have the energy or the will to talk about yourself. As a defence mechanism I ask other people loads of questions."

At work, she can hide behind other people's words, though Strindberg's scripts are no picnic. Creditors is a little-known play and this is a new version by David Greig, co-starring Owen Teale and Tom Burke and directed by the mighty Alan Rickman.

Chancellor feels it is a luxury to play a part that is below the radar of most theatre-goers and so complex. "Tekla is charming, open, funny, insecure, ostracised, vain," she explains. "Like anybody she's got many different facets." Strindberg, born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1849 and friend of Ibsen, Kirkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, has a reputation as a misogynist, because of his warts 'n' all female characters and his own troubled personal relationships.

"He's written a great part for an actress, so that's not exactly misogynistic, is it?" counters Chancellor. "He's exploring his feelings and he's honest about how he feels. He feels the power that women have over him and that makes him mad. Strindberg's out there. He's like Sid Vicious. People who are genuinely radical throw the javelin much further than anyone else. They have to. Maybe the misogynists are the ones who write cute parts for young girls. Maybe half of Hollywood is misogynistic."

Chancellor has been in a good number of Hollywood films but does not feel she has lost out to the dearth of decent acting roles for women. She has, however, at 43, played mothers to men old enough to be her brother.

She has acted with a roll call of leading men. She has played Jeremy Irons's wife twice, most recently in Never So Good at the National Theatre. Hugh Grant, though she lost him to Andie MacDowell in the end, is enviable rom-com totty. As Caroline Bingley in the BBC's much-loved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice she had a stab at Colin Firth, though Elizabeth Bennet eventually wins Mr Darcy.

Creditors is something of an about-turn, with Chancellor's Tekla the object of two men's affections. She is full of praise for Rickman's directing, because he empathises with the job of an actor. "Not only has he done a lot of acting, but he has thought a lot about acting," she explains. "Alan knows what you should and shouldn't do. A lot of directors don't."

Doing Four Weddings in 1994 made earning a living as an actor easier, she says. It was her first film and an amazing experience, but she has never felt part of its phenomenal success. She is not bothered by the Duckface moniker. "I really love ducks," she says.

Chancellor is a country girl at heart but she has lived in Shepherd's Bush since moving to London aged 19 to attend drama school. She has loved acting since she began boarding school at the age of seven, though her family thought her mad to pursue it. She comes from rather grand stock, aristocratic on both sides. Through her mother she is great-great granddaughter to prime minister Herbert Asquith and her father's brother Alexander is a former editor of The Spectator. At 21 she fell pregnant and struggled around Holland on a tour of Oliver Twist, before returning to London to "lie about lazily with my daughter, wondering if I'd ever get a job," splitting from her daughter's father, the poet Jock Scott, several years later.

"Of course, I thought I might have to give up and try something else, but I loved acting," she says. "Luckily, something gave. My career started from doing some very very lowbrow television. I got used to being on camera and I earned some money."

More work did mean she had to leave her daughter Poppy, now at art school, behind. As a single mother she found it hard, but they remain very close. "She's very funny and clever and talented. She'd be good at acting, but I think she finds it all a bit gross that you have to snog people and take your clothes off if they ask you."

She giggles while remembering how Poppy thought Bernardo Bertolucci was called Berta Lucci throughout the filming of The Dreamers, the 2003 film in which she played the mother to Eva Green and Louis Garrel, leaving the siblings alone to experiment with sex and student revolution in Paris.

Chancellor talks as if she is always on the sidelines, looking on at great performers and performances. But the strong women she plays in Four Weddings, Pride and Prejudice, Tipping the Velvet and Spooks capture their scenes even if they are not the starring roles. "I'm no Keira Knightley," she jokes.

'Creditors' opens today at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624)