Stockard Channing: One tough cookie

From Pink Lady to First Lady, Stockard Channing is much like the women she's played - strong, intelligent, blunt. And scary? Clare Rudebeck steels herself...
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The Independent Online

Stockard Channing has a dodgy knee. She's grimacing and moving it hesitantly back and forth. This is not what I expected. Channing has made a career out of playing scary, no-nonsense types - the sort of women who knee men in the balls, not ask them for help crossing the road. But could this twinge in the knee be evidence that the 61-year-old actress may be having to slow down? No. "I was filming an action sequence yesterday and I think I did something to my leg," she says, leaning forward in a plush armchair at the Covent Garden Hotel. She's in London to film Red Mercury, in which she plays a Greek restaurateur who is held hostage by terrorists. "Yes, I got to do some rolls," she says.

Stockard Channing has a dodgy knee. She's grimacing and moving it hesitantly back and forth. This is not what I expected. Channing has made a career out of playing scary, no-nonsense types - the sort of women who knee men in the balls, not ask them for help crossing the road. But could this twinge in the knee be evidence that the 61-year-old actress may be having to slow down? No. "I was filming an action sequence yesterday and I think I did something to my leg," she says, leaning forward in a plush armchair at the Covent Garden Hotel. She's in London to film Red Mercury, in which she plays a Greek restaurateur who is held hostage by terrorists. "Yes, I got to do some rolls," she says.

Wearing a blazer, jeans and glasses on a string around her neck, Channing doesn't look very Hollywood. Instead of the usual drivel you might be used to hearing from actresses, she speaks in measured, thoughtful sentences. You might guess that she was an academic or a businesswoman, were it not for the fact that she has a mane of blonde hair and a figure women 30 years younger would kill for.

Evidence of her ferocious intelligence can be detected in pithy soundbites like these: "Unfortunately, the film industry is run by increasingly young people. The past is like a prologue to them. They don't have the life experience to find older characters interesting." I was expecting that. The Harvard alumni takes her profession seriously. Her CV is heavy with theatre roles. It's no surprise when she describes acting as "my craft, part of who I am".

But is she scary? The women she plays on screen, most notably Abigail Bartlet, the wife of the American president - actor Martin Sheen - in The West Wing, certainly aren't the sort you mess with. Is there a little bit of her in these single-minded, rather forbidding women? Yes, it turns out, there is. "She has a lot of energy," says Channing, when comparing herself to Bartlet. "She speaks her mind. She can be quite blunt. She's intelligent."

There the comparisons end. There is no hectoring over the tea and biscuits with Channing, as there may be with Bartlet; no rolling of the eyeballs. She's not sweet or eager to please, but open, enthusiastic and extremely slow to take offence. But listening to her describe how Bartlett came to be like her, it becomes clear that you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her. When Channing first arrived on the set of the hit NBC drama, her character had no biography or personality. She was there to hang off the president's arm at a state dinner. Her only attributes were three scripted lines and a dress. "I arrived, they threw me into an evening gown and on to the set," says Channing. "I stood with Martin Sheen at the head of a staircase and it was, 'OK. You're married. Action'."

She laughs at the memory, but she was less than impressed at the time. "After we'd finished the take, I said to The West Wing's then-writer, Aaron Sorkin, 'You've got to tell me who Abbey is'. He said, 'I can't tell you that'. I said, 'Then, why am I here?'. He said, 'Talent'. I said, 'We have no time for flattery'. I think my spiky distress during that first exchange informed who Abbey Bartlet became."

In Stephen Fry's 2003 film Bright Young Things, she played the rather scary Mrs Melrose Ape. In one scene, she puts the film's irresponsible party animals firmly in their place saying, "Beautiful, young people, they call you. Well, one out of three ain't bad". I'd wondered if she felt similarly about the pretty things who currently pass for actors in Hollywood. But, no, she doesn't and talks fondly of Julia Stiles, who she worked with in the 2001 film The Business of Strangers. "I really wish I could be around long enough to see what happens in Julia's life," she says. "I was wondering what she'd be like at 40. Then I realised, I probably wouldn't be around."

Stockard has married four times but has no children. Her first husband was Walter Channing, whom she wed at 19. Born Susan Stockard, she amalgamated her surname and his to make her stage name. She now lives in Maine with Daniel Gillham, a cameraman, who she's been with for more than a decade. They are not married. Her desire to be able to see Stiles grow up makes you wonder whether she regrets not having children of her own. But if she does have regrets, she's not showing it. "I'm not particularly proud of that statistic of mine," she says of her four marriages. "There have been times when I've thought, 'I really screwed that up'. But I've had a very interesting life. And it's the culmination of experience that really makes one's life. You've got to live the way you want to live. Don't hedge your bets."

It's a maxim that's governed much of her life. Born into a prosperous New York family, it's often claimed that she was a Park Avenue socialite before she became an actress. But she makes short work of that idea. "Yes, we were a prosperous, middle-class family, but you have to be all grown up to be a socialite," she says. She didn't get into acting by going to the right parties, but by getting out of her privileged circle. "I left home pretty early to live my life," she says. "I went to college, got married and never came back. I was the black sheep of the family." Today, 40 years after she became an actress, she's still enthusiastic about her profession; still refusing to hedge her bets. She's excited to try new parts and unafraid to leave failing relationships. You couldn't imagine this woman whinging.

Her enthusiasm even encompasses Grease, the musical she made more than 25 years ago "to make a couple of dollars one summer", which has been following her around ever since. Her part, Rizzo, was nothing particularly special on the page - the high-school slut. But in Channing's hands, she became a fully rounded mass of contradictions - the one everyone identified with. She doesn't mind talking about the film. "It did absolutely nothing for my career - that I do know," she says. "In those days, before the mega-hit at the box office defined success, that sort of film was looked down upon in the industry. I had to do things in spite of it."

For the year or so after it came out, she had a "rather rough time". But, eventually, she hit her stride again, got theatre work and made more films. She's always survived financially as an actress. And she seems to have fared well emotionally too. "Success is liking what you do and doing it well," she says. "As an actress, I'm at the mercy of other people's perceptions of me. And you never know how good people think you are or how old they think you look. The key is not to worry about it."

And so she hasn't. She has continued to work; to treat every job as a serious job. In some ways, one of her first roles set the pattern. From 1969 to 1974, she played the victim of the number painter in Sesame Street. In the sequence, she would be minding her own business, when the number painter jumped out and daubed her. People have been trying to force crude labels on her ever since - Rizzo, Scary, Spiky - but Channing hasn't let it trouble her.

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