A VICTIM OF HER OWN SUCCESS

Actress JULIET STEVENSON talks with James Rampton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Juliet Stevenson has the uncanny ability to speak volumes without opening her mouth. Remember her look of wide-eyed incomprehension when her husband is admitting to adultery in The Politician's Wife, or the wordless, tear-stained grief of Truly Madly Deeply? In all her performances, the eyes have it.

She gives a similarly expressive display in Stone, Scissors, Paper, a touching Screen Two film about an unconsum-mated love affair between a timid, battered wife (Stevenson) and a solid, married stonemason (Ken Stott) in rural south Yorkshire. In one masterclass of minimalism, she calls him back from the door to give him a silent half-smile before he departs.

Lawrence Bowen, the producer of the film, commends the actress for taking a part "where she's got very little to say verbally but an enormous amount to say through her face. I could talk to you for two hours about Juliet Stevenson's expressive face. She has beautiful eyes that come out of the screen at you."

This presence illuminates her performances on screen and stage. One reviewer of her Gruscha in the Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National Theatre marvelled at the way she "goes for broke and for real, from start to finish". Not for nothing has she been dubbed "the new Vanessa Redgrave".

"She has an intensity about her," Bowen reckons. "Drama is strange in that it's presenting itself as a naturalistic world while condensing life. If it wasn't condensed, you'd be in the cinema for a year. What Juliet does is present an appearance of normality while communicating something much more intense underneath. When she's saying `I must go now' in Stone, Scissors, Paper, what she's actually saying is `I love you, I love you, I love you.' That's quite some skill."

Her wonderfully resonant voice also plays a part in her appeal. "It's very penetrating," Bowen continues. "She's able to go through the exterior part of the brain into the body so you feel it quite deeply."

Stevenson was drawn to Stone, Scissors, Paper by nothing more fancy than a well-written script. "It is very leisurely and quite unfashionable," she avers. "There are pages of stage-directions before a line of dialogue. It's not a huge story, but, established in the writing, is a sense of it being larger than itself. The narrative resonates beyond itself. It's about more than the individuals you're looking at - it's about a community or a moment in history. And it's completely original. So many scripts now have got `wing mirrors' on and are watching what's coming up behind. They are trying to ape formulas that have been successful before."

Stevenson says she was also attracted to this because there are so few original roles for women. "Prime Suspect has spawned a lot of copycats," she laments. "There are quite a lot of roles for strong women in professions - prison governors, police inspectors, doctors and pathologists - but they're not often going to be that interesting. There must be lots of TV people sitting around looking at a list of white-collar professions - `What about a drama about the managing director of a garden centre?"'

Stevenson has always made a point of choosing her roles very carefully - and, in doing so, has maintained an enviable reputation for integrity. She couldn't bring herself to attend a final audition for the part of Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife in True Lies (a role eventually filled by Jamie Lee Curtis). "You can say I'm po-faced," Stevenson now says, "but I found it distasteful. I got into the car to go to the audition and thought, `I can't turn the key'."

Stevenson admits that "it may sound arrogant, but there's got to be some necessity about what you're doing. However much I might want to play Viola, does the world need a fourth production this year of Twelfth Night? It's no good doing stuff I don't respect. The energy comes from belief in a project. I have to like it - or I couldn't get out of bed in the morning."

Stevenson's work has occasionally been on the wrong end of criticism - Ian Hislop famously consigned the cringe-making hop-scotch scene from Truly Madly Deeply to Room 101, and she was fingered as one of Neil Kinnock's "Luvvies for Labour" in 1992 - but that doesn't stop her being ferociously dedicated. "You get shot at if you take it seriously," she sighs, "but how can you not take what you do every day seriously? Critics would much prefer you to take the piss or send it up."

The mother of a young daughter, Stevenson has no desire any more to dash headlessly from one role to the next. "At one time, my life was just about work," she reflects. "How ironic that people who are paid to represent people in the world are so out of touch with the world. Where's your resonance going to come from? Often you see work that is just an observation of someone else's observation. You have to keep checking into real life."

The only thing she is sure about her next role is that it won't be a victim. "I've had a string of those roles," she laughs, "I've got to stop playing women who have been shat on from a great height... I did want to play King Lear, but Kathryn Hunter's just done that. It was the first part I wanted to play when I was 15. When I was first attracted to acting, it was to the big Shakespearean parts like Lear and Richard II. Maybe I'll start thinking about Othello."

Now that, I would love to see.

Stone, Scissors, Paper is in the Sceen Two slot on BBC2 at 10pm next Saturday.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues in rep at the Olivier at the National Theatre (0171-928 2252) until 18 June.

EYE TEST

1957: Born the daughter of a brigadier, she was sent to boarding school at Hurst Lodge in Ascot, the same establishment graced by Fergie

1970s: Trained at Rada, where she won the Gold Bancroft Medal

1980s & 1990s: Theatre: Title role in Hedda Gabler, Rosalind in As You Like It, Isabella in Measure for Measure, Death and the Maiden (won Time Out Best Actress Award), The Duchess of Malfi, The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Films: Drowning by Numbers, The Secret Rapture, Truly Madly Deeply (won Evening Standard Best Actress Award). She says of the film: "Anthony [Minghella, the writer/ director] hit a universal spot, writing a story about loss, not just bereavement. It's a movie about that unglamorous period when you just can't manage"

TV: A Doll's House, Great Journeys, The Politician's Wife - a Channel 4 series about an adulterous minister which was apparently loved by Mrs Alan Clark. "The part was irresistible," Stevenson explains. "It was also really well-timed because we'd just had the 17th sleaze episode. There was a flood of cases of women suffering the double whammy of discovering their husband of 20 years is having a tacky affair and simultaneous public exposure. You're supporting him at the very moment you want to be smashing his head in"

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