BWW Interview: Catherine Steadman Talks WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Catherine Steadman's career spans stage and screen: from Mansfield Park to Downton Abbey, and from Oppenheimer (which earned her an Oliver Award nomination) to That Face at the Royal Court. She's now embarking on a new production of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall.
When did you realise you wanted to become a professional actress?
I think I was about seven years old. I was watching television, it was a medical drama or something along those lines, and I said to my mother "I want to do that job, what job is that?". I was referring to a doctor, but she said it was an actor and not a real doctor, and that by being a performer I could b a doctor one day and a policeman the next. I thought it would be a lot of fun to do all those jobs.
Where did you train?
I trained at the Oxford School of Drama. I stayed in school up until my A-levels, and then I went there straightaway.
What was your first professional acting job and what did you learn from it?
I think it was Mansfield Park, it was lovely. I didn't know all the mechanics of filming - I didn't know you got a central trailer and people followed you around with umbrellas. And I remember saying to everyone that they didn't need to worry about me, and I didn't need an umbrella, but I could carry my own if I ever did. After that someone from the costume department took me to one side and explained that the umbrella wasn't for me but for my costume.
Other than that, it was great to work with such amazing people, Jemma Redgrave was in it, Douglas Hodge, Billie Piper was playing Fanny, Rory Kinnear was there too. It was amazing to be part of it and to watch other amazing actors - I learned on the job with them.
Did you find that what you'd learned at drama school was different from what you were experiencing on the set?
What they teach you in drama school obviously stays with you, but there are things they can't provide, like the experience of a day on set, so we weren't really taught everything about some crafts that are truly important on set. But I do think it's changing now from what I hear - it's focusing more on television because there's more of it.
Is the approach to screen work different from theatre?
Well, first of all you don't get a lovely, long rehearsal period for filming. Usually, casting happens quite late in the production process and you tend to find out you got the part maybe a week or two before you start filming, so all of your rehearsal is on your own at home. Then you realise what you'll be wearing and doing, that's all fresh on the day.
For theatre, everyone arrives on the first day and you're all in the same boat. No one has made strong decisions yet and you slowly work through to get to a joint ensemble piece. Film is a lot more solitary than theatre.
Tell us one thing you don't like about filming and one you don't like about theatre
The first one is really easy: I don't like getting up at four in the morning - I absolutely hate it! It feels like when you have a very early flight. Even if you know you're going into a car and then to hair and make-up and you aren't going to start filming until eight o'clock at best, you get really panicky - "Do I have my passport?" - only then you realise you don't need it. There's something about waking up early in the morning that your body links to an emergency.
I don't really know what I don't like about theatre, it's harder to answer that. What could be considered the worst thing is that sometimes you work with people for very long amounts of time, from the rehearsal period to when you finally get the show up and running, and then it becomes so hard to say goodbye to everyone. You join a company and become best pals, then suddenly you don't see anyone after a year or so. You think you're going to hang out afterwards, but everyone ends up in different places - it's tough.
And now one thing you love about the two?
I absolutely love doing location shooting! You're out on a street and there are 30 extras, you have cars or horses and you can suspend your disbelief completely - "I am in olden times! I've got back in time!". Or you get into these beautiful buildings where in real life they would never let you in, it's great.
But having an audience is one thing I love about theatre. Film crews are the worst public because they can't make any noises. When you're in a theatre it's lovely to see all those people going along with you.
Were you a fan of Agatha Christie's stories before you started preparing for your role in Witness for the Prosecution?
Yes! The main way I've come to her is because a lot of her adaptations are on TV so much. There are so many of them and I still don't know the twist to all, so if one comes on I probably wouldn't know "who did it", I could still go along with it. There have been such great adaptations on the BBC recently too, I love watching those.
Tell us about your character, Romaine. What's she like and in what is she different from you?
She's German, firstly, so that's very different from who I am. The story is set in 1952, just after the Second World War, and to be German then was a particular experience. She would have been facing a lot of xenophobia and there is a lot of baggage that goes with being of a nationality that has lost a war, with people assuming that you'd be a certain way.
As a person, she's very self-sufficient - she's been through a lot and she's seen the worst that people can do, but also the great things they can do. She's not a very sentimental person, though, she's very straightforward.
She's coming into a British society that's very old-fashioned. Coming from a country that's been through a war and has learned to be very hand-to-mouth and suddenly being around all of this politeness, she sees it all as unnecessary. There's a culture clash going on within her: how people should be and how they are instead, what it means to be a good or bad person.
The new production takes place in a courtroom-style setting in County Hall - does that have an impact on how the company approached the material?
I think so, yes. What Lucy Bailey, the director, is trying to bring alive with this production is a very specific idea. If in 1952 you got convicted of murder, what happened was that the judge would wear a black cap and would sentence you to death. What I didn't realise before this is that they took you directly down into the basement of the Old Bailey building and they would hang you, immediately. It was absolutely horrendous!
The executioner would try to get the time that went from the sentence to being declared dead down to as little as possible to stop any unnecessary suffering and worrying. It was a very quick and brutal process. What I think Lucy wants to do is to put the audience in a position where they're watching this trial and they're very aware of the outcome, that this young man might die just on the base of how his case comes across in the courtroom.
She's keeping it very present and exciting for the audience. And since it's going to be set in County Hall, which looks very similar to the Old Bailey, the audience will be, in a sense, the jury and they will watch the case unfold around them. It makes the whole thing much more immediate, there's more at stake.
Recently, many of Christie's works are getting new life - do you think there's a reason?
I was thinking about it and linking it to Stephen King and the IT remake. I think they are both so prolific and able to key into things people are worried about, the fears that we have. King and Christie play on them so well.
In each of her stories there are concerns and worries we don't even admit to ourselves, the prejudices we might have, certain suspicions. Those themes are universal, and with what's happening right now, Christie represents material to draw from. She wrote so many good stories, her characters are so colourful and different. She will always be around and relevant.
Are you making many changes to the original text of Witness for the Prosecution?
There have been some changes. Lucy has worked very closely with the Agatha Christie Trust, who have been very open and helpful. Mainly they've been updates on the language - some of the phrases are quite colourful and don't mean anything anymore. For example, some cockney turns of phrase wouldn't really make sense. It's been tightened up a bit too, but essentially it's pretty much the original script.
Why should people come to see the show?
It will be a very exciting experience, even for people who don't usually go to the theatre or aren't into it. It'll be a really intriguing evening and they'll feel part of what's going on. They'll be immersed into a certain world, time-travelling to a Fifties courtroom...