When thinking about an appropriate location in which to interview an esteemed British actress, you might consider the Groucho Club in London, or a first-class airport lounge somewhere in the world – but no, for my interview with Miriam Margolyes, we were to meet at the Robinson Agricultural Show (or the Robbo Show, if you’re a local), in the Southern Highlands of Australia! And sure enough, sitting among the fresh produce, handicrafts and best-in-show floral arrangements, I found Miriam, happily signing autographs and meeting the locals. What on earth was she doing here, you might think?
Miriam: The year after filming Babe, here in Robertson, I loved the area so much, I bought a block of land and we built a house. I come back as often as work permits, and I like to try to give something back to the local community when I’m here. I have photographs taken with people and in return they buy a few raffle tickets!
As it’s lunchtime, Miriam suggests we go to her house nearby to conduct our interview, so she can take a short break before her afternoon shift back at the Show. As we head towards my car, children recognise Miriam from her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. I was curious to know what was it like to be a part of such a massive film franchise and cultural phenomenon.
Miriam: To be honest it was a job! But I am extremely grateful for it because it gave me fame, money, and contact with people; it’s opened doors and given me a place in the canon of movie blockbusters. How could I not be grateful? But was it emotionally satisfying? No!
We follow a dirt road for a while through dense forest until the vegetation suddenly opens up, and there is Miriam’s home, a contemporary Australian design in timber and glass. She suggests we sit out on the balcony and as I open the large sliding glass doors, I begin to understand why she loves this place; looking out over the treetops, the land soon drops away to reveal the stunning coastline of southern New South Wales. I ask what this place means to her:
Miriam: It’s quiet and restorative, and I can recharge my batteries here. I love the peace and simplicity; I can read, and see friends. I love it – I just need the peace!
Miriam studied English at Cambridge University, so I was keen to know if she had decided early on to become an actress.
Miriam: I always wanted to be an actress, but I think I never really thought it would happen! I was taken to the theatre as a child, and mummy would have been an actress if it hadn’t been inappropriate for a nice Jewish girl at that time. So as soon as I went up to Cambridge, I joined all of the Societies. They spot the freshmen talent when it comes through, and as soon as I had done my first audition, everyone wanted to work with me, which was very flattering. In three years I did twenty productions; they were my training, that’s where I learnt how to do it. In fact, in some ways, I was a bigger star in Cambridge, than anywhere else! Cambridge was my training, my discovery, my creative jolt that started me going.
Given we are in Robertson, the location of the film Babe, it seems remiss of me not to discuss Miriam’s experience on that project.
Miriam: I began by reading the book. I knew I wanted to do it, from the minute I read the first line of the script: “this is the tale of an unprejudiced heart…”, that immediately grabbed me. Chris Noonan (the director) and I were in a studio, in North Sydney, one-on-one for nearly a month recording the voice. I had to be an incredibly warm, motherly, safe, “animal”, but she was always a “person” to me. And it was under Chris’ tutelage that we evolved Fly (Miriam’s character). I wanted her to be a Scottish Border Collie, and we recorded it (with the accent), and then the American (investors) said “no one will be able to understand it”, so I had to come back to Australia and rerecord it again.
One of my favourite roles Miriam has played, which also has a strong Australian connection, was as the Nurse, in Baz Luhrmann’s film version of Romeo & Juliet. I love the warmth in her relationship with Clare Danes who played Juliet, and was fascinated to understand better how actors are able to fast-track relationships with fellow cast-members, to achieve that kind of chemistry.
Miriam: You just go to the text. The text is the be all and end all. You just have to read it over, and over again. Every time we did a take, Baz would critique it, and orchestrate it; so he made it possible for us to vary it, which is thrilling for an actor. I was very pleased with what I did in Romeo & Juliet, and Alec Guinness praised it, and he’s an actor I admire very much.
In 1989 Miriam co-wrote and began performing a one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, in which she plays twenty-three characters from Dickens’ novels. She’s now gone on to perform this show many times in cities around the world. What is it about Dickens’ work that made her want to create this show?
Miriam: From the time I read Oliver Twist at age eleven, the world he created enveloped me; I was completely immersed the minute I started the book. I began with Oliver Twist, which is a story of crime, misery, brutality and murder, and all the characters are so clear, they burst out of the page at you. I was enthralled, so I just read all of his books straight away, over and over again. Then, as I got older, I realised Dickens himself was absolutely fascinating as a human being. I studied him at Cambridge, and it was there that I got the idea, that more than any other writer, he put his life into his work. All the women were based on people he knew, and so I thought it would be interesting to explore the women in his life, and the women in his work, and that was the genesis of Dickens’ Women. I think it is the thing I am proudest of in my life!
Dickens’ Women was taken on a world tour in 2012 as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Dickens’ birth and Miriam has also toured Australia and New Zealand with the play in 2007.
Miriam: Everywhere (we stage the play) the audience reacts with amazement, discovery and joy. I think one of the best performances I every gave was in Agra in India. It was the day that the costumes and sets hadn’t arrived, so we had to do the play without music, without anything, so the focus became the words. Along side Shakespeare, I think Dickens is the greatest writer; he was not just telling a story, he was analysing and presenting the state of England at the time he lived. We see the nineteenth century through Dickens’ eyes; he is our filter. He created over two thousand characters; the clarity of his vision and the energy of his moral vision, is what moves me.
As we finish lunch, I realise this magical time with Miriam must sadly come to an end, but not before some final words of wisdom about the importance of art, and her role as an actor:
Miriam: I think its connection with people. I am a communicator. I’m able to talk to people, and reach people, and I think that’s what art allows us to do. It allows us to jump over the chasms that separate us, and show the truth to each other. Different kinds of people can come together, embrace, relish and share, and that’s what I think art should be. Art, for me, is a very moral activity; “only connection”, as EM Forster said; John Donne said it better: “No man is an island”, and that is my spur.
If you would like to know more about Miriam and what she is up to, click here.