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In the Hot Seat: An Evening with Julie Walters

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In case you're wondering how a brush with theatre's best comes about, it's not as hard as you might imagine. The gems at the Actor's Centre and 10th Planet Productions have organised a series of master classes for their members. It's a rare opportunity to hear from the people who truly call the acting profession 'home'. Julie Walters launched the season at the Tristan Bates Theatre and with names such as Penelope Keith, Prunella Scales, Jeremy Irons, Maureen Lipman, Robert Lindsay, Juliet Stevenson and Paul Nicholas on board, inspiration levels are set to soar.

Such big names come with bulging social diaries, therefore dates and names for the sessions will be confirmed on an ongoing basis. Interested people can sign up to a regular e-bulletin list at masterclass@tenthplanetproroductions.com to be the first to know about sessions as they are confirmed. I almost hate to give you this inside information… I don't want to be pipped at the post!

Back to Julie… as she sat in the cafeteria chatting away to the host for the evening, it was obvious that this is a woman who doesn't mind getting in amongst the crowd; and a mixed crowd it was. Acting students, wannabe directors, fans, cinema lovers and established performers, you name it. Sure, we've all seen her on stage and in movies like Educating Rita, Calendar Girls and Harry Potter, but what really makes her tick? Here's a glimpse into the mind of the real Julie Walters:

How important do you think training is for an actor?

I think it's very important… I trained at the Manchester Metropolitan University and it was just the most wonderful way to learn. For starters, you're cast in roles that you otherwise wouldn't be cast in, and you get to do it without critics or newspapers and the media. So, it was great to learn about the truth of acting. There are some things you just can't teach. I think people are actors or they're not… training doesn't necessarily make you an actor. Some people are very good at behaving. (Laughs).  It's really about instinct.

What did your parents say when you decided to you wanted to act?

Well, they went mad! We went to the amateur theatre occasionally with friends. The actors all had orange make-up and big voices and I loved it. When I told them I wanted to be an actor they just didn't understand… I didn't really either. I just used to look at the television and think "I could do that".

It was very frightening for my mother… until I got the pension which was about twenty years later.

Did you already have a job?

No, well… I was sort of asked to leave school. They basically said they didn't want me back. I asked why and they said I was subversive. I had to look it up in the dictionary! The deputy head had given me a letter to give to my mother… I knew she'd be a force to be reckoned with so I put it in the dust bin! Then I went home to my mother and told her I was going to be a nurse (which I knew she wanted). She was thrilled with this so I said "Well, there's no use in me going to school then". She didn't realise I was never at school anyway! She thought I was being responsible… nursing was what she'd wanted to do – so I was sort of doing what she would have liked for herself. I did nursing for awhile but half way though I knew I should just go for what I really wanted to do.

I remember sitting in the bath at home and saying it. "I want to be an actress; I want to be an actress". I then looked up 'drama' in the phone book … I rang the first contact I saw in there and they answered:

"Yeeeees?"
"I want to be and actress"
"Do you have any qualifications?"
"Well, I've got four GCSE's"
"Oh no… you can't possibly go to university"

And that's all they said! Luckily, a friend at Manchester Polytechnic told me they had a drama course and told me to apply. So, I went and auditioned. I knew nothing about the play, nothing about the characters and I had no idea that the character I'd chosen was a man… or that the playwright was a woman! So, I got two things wrong in the interview… but, I got in! It all went from there…

How did you meet Victoria Wood?

Well, we first met in 1978. She wrote all these little sonnets and a sketch – it was an evening full of different playlists by various writers and she wrote one called 'Sex'. "I was a librarian and she'd bring a book and say "where are your menstrual cycles?" and I said "Taurus!" We really just got on.

While we were having our 'boil and chips' in a café that was over the road, she said 'we've met before" in a sinister kind of way. It turned out that she'd auditioned for Manchester Polytechnic when I was a student. I'd ushered them all in (wearing my leotard and tights). Then I remembered… this little girl with glasses throwing up in a bucket – she really did. And she didn't get in! Manchester College have suffered… because I've told absolutely everybody that story! In the end, I got a letter from the director of Manchester Polytechnic saying "Look, we're SORRY she didn't get in!"

You've done a lot collaborating with Victoria … are there any more things in the pipeline?

No, there are never things in the pipeline. Actually, it's quite nice of you to say collaborating because what is usually consists of is her saying "Julie, I've written something… would you like to be in it?" Then me saying "Yeah!"

After 'Educating Rita,' things really took off. How did you feel about being thrown into the limelight?

Well, I though I loved it! I had a certain way of dealing with it; going out partying and generally going mad. It is very hard, all of that.

Did it all go to your head?

Well, the drink went to my head! But I did manage to calm down and think "Now what's going wrong here?" It was all the media madness and crap that really doesn't mean anything. You just have to get a sense of yourself and realise its okay – that isn't defining who I am. The 80s were a bit like being a teenager for me – despite being in my 30s… but there you are.

Is there a lot of pressure on you to create a character in a certain way?

I don't think like that. The script either goes into my heart or it doesn't. But yes, I then think… "If I'm going to have to play it and there has to be a truth in it for me". Scripts often come in and I think "I know this is good but it's not going to mean anything to me". I veer away from things for that reason.

Have you ever had to take a job on even though you don't really want to?

I've been very fortunate… so no.

For more information about the masterclasses, please read on:

Time and Dates: 6pm, selected Mondays from 12th March
Tickets: £12/ £10 conc
Box Office: 020 7240 6283 (from 2pm until 6pm Mon - Fri)
Or email boxoffice@actorscentre.co.uk

Address: Tristan Bates Theatre, 1a Tower St, London, WC2H 9NP

For more of Katie Spain's theatre interviews, visit her Theatre Buff blog


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Katie Splain is an Entertainment Editor, Radio Presenter and Journalist hailing from rural Australia. She left the cows and the wide open spaces to pursue (read more...)