Interview

Lindsay Duncan: ‘You feel awkward and shy and then suddenly you’re seen as something else’

The veteran actor talks to Alexandra Pollard about her new horror film ‘A Banquet’, losing her oldest friend, and why we need ‘good, big, important plays’ now more than ever

Sunday 13 March 2022 11:41
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A week before we are due to meet, I spot Lindsay Duncan a few rows in front of me at the National Theatre. Was it definitely her, I ask her now? At The Normal Heart? “Oh yes! Yes, yes, yes,” beams the star of Birdman and Doctor Who, sitting in the glass-walled suite of a fancy London hotel. What did she think of it? “Oh God.” There’s a long silence, then a sharp, shaky intake of breath. “It’s difficult. Sorry.”

I didn’t know this when I brought it up, but The Normal Heart – Larry Kramer’s astonishing 1985 account of the Aids crisis – hits close to home for Duncan. The 71-year-old lost her oldest, closest friend, the playwright Kevin Elyot, to Aids. They went to neighbouring schools, then to the same university, and decades later he wrote a role for her in Mouth to Mouth, his play about a struggling playwright with Aids. She was nominated for an Olivier Award for it. In 2014, the disease finally killed him. Duncan’s husband, fellow actor Hilton McRae, lost his oldest friend to Aids, too. “It is personal,” she says, pressing a tissue underneath her eyes. “We’re of that generation. We were literally there.” She was in her early twenties when the epidemic first began to spread. “Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew. And people weren’t interested because it was about homosexuals.”

She looks at me for a moment. “Of course, you’re much younger,” she says, “so I wondered if the play packed the same punch for you – because I thought it was extraordinary.” I didn’t live through it, I tell her, but the play was still a reminder of what the queer community went through so that people my age can live the lives we do. She nods. “Seeing young people sitting around me going like this” – she puts her hand gently in front of her mouth, as if in horror and sadness – “and thinking, ‘You’re there’... that was so gratifying. Because it’s very, very powerful when you witness things. Witnessing is important. There will always be something that some people don’t want to look at, and other people know in their bones has to be looked at. Just being in the audience there, it made me full up. I was just so glad that it was there, and we were there. It just felt important.”

Duncan is incredibly effusive. Everything she says – in that gentle, smoky voice of hers – feels like it comes from the deepest recesses of her soul. She’s no luvvie, but she has a sort of pure, concentrated presence. It’s the same when she acts, whether she’s a Mars shuttle commander in Doctor Who, a fragile divorcee on stage in Private Lives, or showing the chink in Margaret Thatcher’s steely armour in 2009’s BBC drama Margaret. Today, when she’s feeling particularly reverential about something – which is often – she whispers.

Take her new film, A Banquet, a skin-crawling psychological horror about a teenage girl, Jessica Alexander’s Betsey, who inexplicably stops eating – much to the alarm of her mother (Sienna Guillory) and the quiet fury of her grandmother (Duncan). It is Ruth Paxton’s directorial feature debut, yet Duncan speaks about her in hushed, enamoured tones. “Ruth is one of my heroines,” she says. “I only know her through this, but everything about her as a filmmaker, as a person, just speaks to my heart and my mind. She wants to explore things. She doesn’t want to be didactic. At the end of this film, there are just questions popping, popping, popping everywhere. Did you think that?” I did: is Betsey mentally ill or possessed by the devil? Or is it she who’s possessing the family? “Good!” cries Duncan. “Oh good, oh good.”

Unlike Duncan, her character June has a certain froideur. Even her icy blonde bob is severe. “We’ve all got problems, darling,” she tells her granddaughter. “Don’t be the show.” Later, it’s implied that she once sent her own daughter away in similar circumstances. “It’s not my idea of mothering,” says Duncan, who has one son, Cal, in his early thirties, “but it was her idea of mothering.”

A Banquet is, she continues, full of observations “that are so human, so unbearably poignant, about our fragility as human beings. We can’t control things, and love can’t always make it right.” She clasps her hands together, almost breathless. “Oh God, it’s so brilliant. It just keeps you in this grip that’s gentle and firm at the same time. As a viewer you can’t get out of it.”

A Banquet was the first acting job Duncan did after lockdown restrictions briefly eased in the summer of 2020. “Everything was new,” she says. “Testing. These.” She holds up the mask in her lap. “They’d call action and I’d think, ‘Oh s***, I haven’t taken my mask off’, and then cut and I didn’t put my mask back on. And we were putting our masks under cushions on the set, and then whipping them out again. It was totally unhygienic.” Despite all that, though, “it’s been really nice to see other human beings. And my instinct was to do work that felt important.”

Lindsay Duncan in Ruth Paxton’s horror film ‘A Banquet’

She has felt a particular pull, since the pandemic began, towards that kind of work. “I know people are flocking to musicals, to laugh and to smile, but we need really good, big, important plays and films that we can witness together,” she says. “I think it’s good for us. Because we feel more human as a result. And we feel more connected, don’t we? The idea of really good work moves me enormously.”

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Is that why she became an actor? “I don’t think I knew the power of it,” she says. “It just was some kind of instinct. It drew me. A sense that when you’re seeing something, when you’re part of something, that something is happening.” She’s whispering again. “You don’t know what it is, but it’s happening and you want to be a part of it.”

Duncan, the daughter of two working-class Scots, spent the first few years of her life in Scotland before moving to the English Midlands. Her dad died in a car accident when she was a teenager, and the family had “no money”. They had no telephone, no car, and no TV. One of her few luxuries was the weekly family outing to the cinema, to which she would bring along her teddy bear in a shopping bag.

It was her English teacher Kate Flint – “she looked like a Kate Flint” – who first encouraged her to act, choosing school plays that would make Duncan shine. Antigone was a particular highlight. “She made me feel like I was worth something,” says Duncan. She acted in the boys’ school plays too, taking on whatever female role they needed filling. That’s how she got to know Kevin Elyot. “I crossed the drive to go over into the boys’ school and all of it was intoxicating,” she says. “It wasn’t about sex, because these guys were gay, it was about shared interests. And they seemed to think I had a place. You’re just fudging your way through and you feel awkward and shy and then suddenly, you’re in this place where people don’t think of you like that. They see you as something else.”

The idea of really good work moves me enormously

Lindsay Duncan

It was Elyot who told her that studying drama was an option – “I said, ‘There are drama schools? What?’” – though she didn’t get into one until she was 21. From there came weekly rep in the English seaside town of Southwold, which involved doing a play a week in-between getting stoned and going to the pub, then a stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange before she landed a role in Top Girls at the Royal Court. After that, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, frequent collaborations with Harold Pinter, as well as TV and films.

Older generations will have seen her as the wealthy manipulator Barbara Douglas in the TV drama GBH, younger ones as the Doctor’s brief, humanity-saving companion Adelaide Brooke in Doctor Who, or as Lady Smallwood in Sherlock. She’s popped up in Starter for Ten, Alice in Wonderland, Black Mirror, About Time, Birdman – she even had a small voice role as the droid TC-14 in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

She’s had criminally few starring roles onscreen, though. Margaret was an exception. Le Week-End (2013) was another. In Roger Michell’s wry, meandering comedy-drama, about a married couple who go to Paris to try and rekindle their marriage, Duncan is mesmeric but never showy. “It’s me I want more of,” she shouts when her husband accuses her of wanting somebody else. She is an actor who is unafraid of the complex, and so she plays Meg as callous one moment, vulnerable the next. Her performance prompted many critics to wonder why Duncan wasn’t up there in the highest acting echelons with Maggie Smith and Julie Walters. Michell, who died last year, said that she was “deserving of great fame and fortune, and I’d love it if she got that”.

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan in Roger Michell’s ‘Le Week-End’

Duncan doesn’t seem particularly interested in great fame and fortune, though. It is, she says, a “miracle” that she’s made a career out of acting, “because it’s been my life and it’s been a fantastic, fantastic way of life, and way of being in the world, actually. Learning more. Being with people who are curious. The older I get, the more curious I get.”

But during lockdown, when she could barely work at all, “I was absolutely fine”, she whispers. “I don’t want to work the way I did when I was doing loads and loads of theatre. I definitely want more life. And I love my life, and life itself.” She breathes a sigh of relief. “I do, really.”

‘A Banquet’ is in cinemas and on digital now

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