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Spotlight On RICHARD III: Gemma Jones

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Today we are kicking off our trio of InDepth InterViews with the leading ladies of the new BAM production of RICHARD III by talking to stage and screen star Gemma Jones all about her role in the politically-themed Shakespeare historical drama, which continues performances at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music through March 4. In addition to an exhaustive discussion of this new Sam Mendes-directed, Kevin Spacey-starring production in which she essays the role of Queen Margaret, Jones and I also discuss what inspires her most about Shakespeare’s work, the differing reactions to this internationally toured production from audiences around the world and a complete character analysis of her expanded role in this equal-parts contemporary and classic iteration of it. Additionally, Jones opens up about her previous Shakespeare roles and what she would like to take on in the future. Plus, comments on her leading role in Woody Allen’s recent YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER co-starring Anthony Hopkins, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY and its sequels co-starring Renee Zellweger, Ken Russell’s controversial masterpiece THE DEVILS, and, of course, Poppy Pomfrey in the HARRY POTTER franchise and, also, her small screen role on the hit Brit series MERLIN, as well as her candid reflections on some of the other notable stage and screen appearances she has made over the many years she has spent perfecting her formidable craft.

Further information on RICHARD III at BAM can be found here.

Queen & Spectre

PC: YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is one of my favorite films from the last decade or so. It's absolutely delightful.

GJ: Oh, that’s nice to hear! Thank you very, very much.

PC: Was it an enjoyable experience to do that film?

GJ: It was hugely enjoyable to do it. I was so flattered to be asked to do it, so, initially, I was quite nervous - with such an icon.

PC: Like Woody Allen.

GJ: Yes. He was delightful to work with and it was a very happy shoot. And, a lovely part, of course.

PC: To say the least. Were you shocked when you first read the script and discovered this was the best role in the film?

GJ: Well, I was! You see, initially, I was told that Woody Allen doesn’t give his actors scripts, he just gives them pages.

PC: This is true.

GJ: When I tested for him, I did one scene and I rang my agent and said, “It was a nice scene.” And, then, she called back and said, “You’ve got it!” And, I said, “Is it just that one scene?” And, she said, “No, no - there’s lot’s more!” So, I got quite nervous and I thought, “Oh, my God! I hope he sends me the script so I have time to learn it!”

PC: That’s hilarious.

GJ: [Laughs.] When eventually I did get the script - which was in advance of the shoot, thank God - I was overwhelmed with what a lovely part it was.

PC: And it is also such a great ensemble piece. Did you get on well with Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin?

GJ: Oh, yes, I did - very much. Everyone was very friendly.

PC: Did you ever share a scene with Antonio Banderas that perhaps got cut from the final film?

GJ: Well, I never had any scenes with him - which was such a shame because I met him in the car park and, you know, went weak in the knees! [Laughs.]

PC: I bet.

GJ: He was so sweet and handsome and friendly and delightful, but we never had any scenes together.

PC: It seems that, starting with MATCH POINT - starring fellow InDepth InterView participant Scarlett Johansson - that the films Woody Allen has done in Europe have reinvigorated him artistically.

GJ: Yes, yes - indeed they have. I am very happy for him.

PC: Where was STRANGER filmed - all in London, correct?

GJ: Yes, it was all in London.

PC: Is it true there are some obscure locations not given much attention to on film in the past?

GJ: Well, they were familiar to me but I think perhaps not familiar to American audiences. [Laughs.]

PC: I think THE DEVILS is an absolute landmark for film, so what can you tell me about working with Ken Russell on it?

GJ: Yes, I certainly have memories of it - because it was a pretty mad shoot!

PC: I can’t even begin to imagine.

GJ: We did a lot of night shoots, I remember, so it was a lot of sitting around talking to a lot of retrograde British actors, drinking a lot to keep awake! [Laughs.]

PC: What was Ken Russell like during the shoot?

GJ: Oh, I enjoyed working with Ken Russell - he sort of pushed you to the limit, which I appreciated. He was very brave and uninhibited. And, of course, we had a wonderful set design by Derek Jarman.

PC: A truly genius design.

GJ: Yes. He didn’t do many film designs, but he made really magnificent sets for that.

PC: There are some unforgettable images in that film. “The Rape Of Christ”?

GJ: Yes! Yes.

PC: Michael Crawford just did this column and told me some great Oliver Reed stories, so I’d love to hear your impressions of him while working on THE DEVILS.

GJ: Well, Oliver Reed was very nice to me. I was quite young and quite timid, and, because I was playing a sort of innocent, I avoided the worst excesses of having to take all my clothes off and do weird things. But, Oliver was very, very helpful to me. And, contrary to his reputation, onset he was just absolutely professional and focused, even though he managed to burn the candle at both ends. [Laughs.]

PC: THE DEVILS has never been officially released uncut on DVD or home video. Would you like to see a proper release of it finally?

GJ: Oh, I certainly would. I think that now it would seem fairly tame. [Laughs.] When it came out, it seemed very X-certificate, but I think audiences would appreciate its bravery now.

PC: It has influenced so many major directors and films since its release. It’s time.

GJ: It’s time.

PC: You never worked with Oliver again, did you?

GJ: No, I never worked with Oliver again.

PC: From film to Shakespeare on television: you were exquisite as Portia in the BBC film of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, I have to say.

GJ: Oh, thank you, thank you.

PC: What have been some of your favorite Shakespeare roles since then?

GJ: I have done a lot of Shakespeare onstage in England, so let me think. [Pause.] I was in a lovely production of TWELFTH NIGHT, where I played Mariah. I also did JULIUS CAESER with the RSC. I came here to BAM about fifteen years ago and did a production of THE WINTER’S TALE that had come from the RSC, where I played Hermione.

PC: What a role! Maybe the best female role in Shakespeare.

GJ: Yes, I played Hermione the first time and then I did it again and played the more mature part.

PC: It’s such a remarkable play - Shakespeare’s finest, I think.

GJ: I think it’s my favorite play, too.

PC: Is there a moment that stays in your mind?

GJ: It’s when the statue wakes up - it always gets me. It’s so, so moving.

PC: Only Shakespeare could write a silent scene with that much power.

GJ: [Laughs.] Yes. Yes.

PC: Where do you place RICHARD III in Shakespeare’s canon? How do you categorize it - is it a history or a tragedy?

GJ: Well, I think it’s difficult as a history. But, what’s been thrilling about this tour has been that the audiences who don’t know the history - because we have been traveling all around the world with this production - has certainly appreciated its wonderful, clear storytelling as a tragedy. So, in a way, you don’t need to intimately know the history for it to be very effective.

PC: How fascinating.

GJ: Kevin just gives such a fantastic performance. It’s been a great honor to work with him.

PC: You have all been working together for nearly a year doing this production, yes?

GJ: It will, by the time we finish in March, be nearly a year. Yes.

PC: How did you first get involved with Sam Mendes in doing this production in the first place?

GJ: Well, initially, I very much wanted to work with Kevin because I was a great admirer of his stage work.

PC: Of course.

GJ: And, the part, it’s not huge, but it’s a really challenging role. Now that I am the age I am, there aren’t that many roles left. So, I thought, “Oh, I must do one more before I walk into my Zimmer-frame - my walker.” [Big Laugh.]

PC: I don’t know about that - I can think of a few other roles for you!

GJ: Yes, but not in Shakespeare, sadly - they’re just not written. All the Shakespeare parts are for young women, mostly.

PC: Sadly true.

GJ: But, yes, I am thrilled to be doing RICHARD III. We had a fantastic tour - we traveled all around the world. It’s a wonderful bunch of people - and, we get on remarkably well considering we have been in such close proximity to each other for such a long time. [Laughs.]

PC: A half-British, half-American cast, as well.

GJ: Yes. The English cast are very thrilled to be here - some of them have never been to New York before. So, that’s exciting. The American cast has been very, very welcoming. We are all having a good time.

PC: Do you find there are different ways of effectively learning Shakespeare? You come from perhaps the greatest era of classic acting in the British theatre, back in the 1960s.

GJ: Well, that’s the extraordinary thing about theatre, really: even though we might have different approaches, we all meet up at the same place in the middle.

PC: That’s very true.

GJ: Sam was very good about unifying our work process. I don’t think anyone ever resisted. [Pause.] So, we might have had different processes at the beginning, but it all worked out in the end.

PC: How have you shaped the text as you have gone along? There is thankfully not a lot cut - it’s a long, but rewarding experience.

GJ: Yeah, it’s about three and a half hours, I think. There are not very many cuts, but they are all sensible cuts. Sometimes, as you know, my role is cut completely!

PC: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you next! In Ian McKellen’s superb film version, Queen Margaret is unfortunately completely cut.

GJ: I know! I thought it was a terrific film, but he did cut her out all together.

PC: Sir Ian has actually done this column as well. Are you two friendly?

GJ: Oh, yes - I know Ian. I worked with him for the first time many, many years ago. I admire him tremendously.

PC: How did you shape your interpretation of the role considering that its impact varies from production to production?

GJ: Sam has actually extended my performance - he has put me in scenes that Shakespeare hasn’t. I am very grateful.

PC: Which scenes in particular do you think the addition of your character enhances?

GJ: Well, I come on fairly regularly - mute; I don’t have more lines - and I oversee the deaths as if I am a kind of spectre that is making it all happen, which is rather exciting.

PC: What motivated that directorial decision?

GJ: It’s because I curse everybody at the beginning and foretell that these deaths are going to happen, so when the deaths do happen I am there as a sort of avenging angel. And, I am there at the end when Richard dies, as well. So, Sam has made it a really rather splendid role for me.

PC: The final moments are a maelstrom of emotion. Do you watch Kevin perform from offstage at any point?

GJ: Well, I don’t watch from offstage because we can’t, really - our set and everything is so closed! [Laughs.]

PC: Is there a moment you think is particularly applicable to 2012 and makes this play ideal for our times?

GJ: I suppose that it is that tyrants, like Richard, will have their day and they will have their comeuppance, so nobody can ever really escape.

PC: Fate captures us all sooner or later - good and bad alike. We’ve seen Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein fall in recent history, tyrannical figures not unlike Richard.

GJ: Of course, the frightening thing is that these powerful people are very plausible and that is how the population gets gulled into believing them. You have to remove your skepticism and think that it would have been possible to be seduced by a personality like that - and, that goes on a lot, obviously, today; misguidedly, innocent people are seduced by bad people.

PC: What are your thoughts on the more contemporary milieu of this particular production? Does it ease the audience into the story and make them more open to the experience?

GJ: Well, it’s directed to be in no specific time. I think Sam and the designer have very cleverly placed it so that you don’t immediately look at this and say, “Oh, that’s the 1940s!” Or, “Oh, that’s not Shakespeare!” It’s in no specific time. And, Kevin plays the verse so brilliantly that I think people who are scared and thinking, “Oh, I don’t understand Shakespeare,” will be delightfully surprised by how immediate Kevin makes it. He talks directly to the audience - I mean, Shakespeare has written it like that, but it’s incredibly unusual that a character in the canon comes out and talks directly to the audience. So, I think that must be quite exciting to experience if you are in the audience.

PC: Without question.

GJ: So, I think it’s very immediate and understandable. I wouldn’t call it a modern production, though.

PC: Is there a moment in the play that speaks to you as an actor in particular?

GJ: Well, it’s hard for me to judge that because I am so into my own role. [Laughs.] I suppose I’d have to go back to the script! Ask me again tomorrow! [Laughs.]

PC: That’s so funny.

GJ: In all seriousness, we have some very thrilling moments, though. What really excites me most is the physicality of the production - we use a lot of drums. All of the company had drumming rehearsal, endlessly, for weeks - including myself, although I didn’t finally end up being a drummer. These are trained actors who are wonderfully talented, but they aren’t necessarily schooled in drumming, you know!

PC: Of course not.

GJ: The drumming they do throughout the production is really thrilling to me.

PC: How do you view the women of RICHARD III, particularly with the way they relate to Richard? What role does gender play in this piece, do you think?

GJ: Well, the women are very strong in this play.

PC: To say the least.

GJ: That is unusual for Shakespeare. All of the women are strong - you know, the young Lady Anne is very strong and so are the three adult women. We also have two actresses playing boys and they play them beautifully, as well. [Laughs.]

PC: How’s that for a 21st century Shakespearean casting twist!

GJ: The women are unusually strong in this play. And, although they are, you know, hard done by and crucified, they are wonderful roles for actresses. I think it’s a wonderful counterpoint to Richard, who is this extraordinarily powerful figure at the center of it. As played by Kevin, it sometimes seems like it’s hard for other actors to enter his space, but I think the women do that - they syncopate Kevin’s performance, inevitably, because, of course, we are a different gender. And, all the women, I think, give great performances.

PC: How fascinating.

GJ: I do have to say that we have been getting wonderful responses from people saying things like, “Oh, the women are great!” So, you know, I always like to hear that! [Laughs.]

PC: I bet! Had you worked with Maureen Anderman or Hayden Gwynne before?

GJ: No, I never have.

PC: Did you have an enjoyable time in rehearsal with them?

GJ: Oh, yes, we got on very well. You know, it’s like being in a big club if you are lucky enough to still be working - we all have a lot of friends in common. And, very often we’ve been sharing dressing rooms around the world, so we have gotten to know each other quite well - that has been very nice.

PC: Is it true this production may be filmed?

GJ: I don’t know that, but we are rather hoping it will.

PC: It definitely fits like a glove in the theater at BAM.

GJ: Yes, it’s just fantastic at the theater there, the Harvey. It really is.

PC: Is there a Shakespeare role you’d like to do in the future to follow this up? Perhaps the queen in HENRY VIII?

GJ: Well, I’ve done HENRY VIII, actually, but I’d love to play Volumnia in CORIOLANUS.

PC: Vanessa Redgrave is dynamite in the new film version.

GJ: Yes, I very much look forward to seeing that and seeing her in that.

PC: Kenneth Branagh recently did this column and I was curious if you shared any time on the HARRY POTTER set together?

GJ: Well, I didn’t see much of him, actually, when we were working on that, but I did make a movie with him about five years ago called THE THEORY OF FLIGHT. I liked him very much and I got to know him then. Since we didn’t have any scenes together in HARRY POTTER, it’s just such a huge juggernaut that we didn’t share the same working days.

PC: Are you pleased to be a memorable part of such a tremendous franchise like HARRY POTTER?

GJ: Oh, yes, I am very honored to be a part of it. And, I l am looking forward to showing it to my grandchildren! [Laughs.]

PC: Moving to TV: will you be returning to MERLIN?

GJ: No, I don’t think I will be returning to MERLIN.

PC: MERLIN is catching on in a big way in this country, so many more people will be seeing you in those two fabulous episodes you did.

GJ: Yes, I’ve heard that! It was great fun to do.

PC: What’s immidiately next for you after RICHARD III?

GJ: I am going back to do the third BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY after this.

PC: I’ve heard Renee Zellweger has been eating hamburgers again to get back into shape for the role!

GJ: [Laughs.] Yes! Yes. The poor thing.

PC: Will the whole cast be returning?

GJ: Yes, definitely. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent - the same team are going to be in it.

PC: And the script is promising? Are you satisfied with it?

GJ: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

PC: Last question: Is Gemma short for Jennifer?

GJ: No, I had to change my name because of the film actress Jennifer Jones. So, when I was in drama school I was advised that I needed to change my name. My father, Griffith Jones, appeared in a film with Elisabeth Bergner many, many years ago, and she played a character in this film names Gemma Jones. So, my father said, “Why not try ‘Gemma’?” And, it was rather distressing, initially, losing my own name, but, now, very few people know me as Jennifer except for very old aunties and such. [Laughs.]

PC: Congratulations to you, Gemma - a terrific Woody Allen film, the biggest film franchise on the planet thanks to HARRY POTTER, this superb production of RICHARD III, MERLIN, and, next, the new BRIDGET JONES!

GJ: Can’t get much better than that! [Laughs.]

PC: Do you feel this is a special time in your career?

GJ: Well, I’m really just grateful to be working, so, yes, it’s quite lovely!

PC: This was absolutely fantastic. Thank you so very much, Gemma.

GJ: Thank you very much indeed, Pat. Bye bye.


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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)