■ The W1A actress, 51, on the new series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and working on the EastEnders set in lockdown
What are you up to in Talking Heads?
Alan Bennett has written two new pieces in addition to the original episodes that have been remade. I’m doing one of them. It means I’m not following in the footsteps of a legendary actress like Maggie Smith or Patricia Routledge and I really admire those of us in our troupe who are doing that. My episode is called The Shrine and it’s about Lorna, who is recently widowed — and I can’t say much more. I love how a story unfolds but the person speaking doesn’t necessarily realise they’re telling a story, they’re just letting information slip.
Some people think of Alan Bennett as twee but Talking Heads is full of dark subject matter…
The writing is buoyant and light but there’s so much darkness beneath it. There’s something heartbreaking about so many of his characters — they face the world by being cheerful but really monumental things are happening to them.
You did it in lockdown. Did you do your hair and make-up?
Yes. I did some rehearsals over Zoom and a session with the make-up designer. It must have been quite frustrating for her on set because she could see immediately what didn’t look right and what needed changing. There was a moment when she and the make- up assistant kept walking closer to me, pointing to a bit of hair that needed to be flattened down. So everyone had to remember to stick to the two-metre rule.
You filmed this on the EastEnders sets. Did you have a trip around Albert Square?
The director Nicholas Hytner did a selfie outside the Queen Vic but I was too busy — we shot the episodes in one day. And it was very detailed about setting shots up and who was on the sets and when to maintain social distancing — there was a lot of logistics. For the filming it was just me, the camera operator and the boom operator. They were wearing white gloves so they looked like they had Smurf hands, which was a bit distracting.
What other work have you been doing in lockdown?
My aunt gave me a gardening book ten years ago — when this started I thought, ‘I’ll finally get stuck into the garden.’ But then I did one of the short plays for the Unprecedented series. I filmed that at home via Zoom and my mum told me off because the room looked really messy. I had to tell her that’s what the art director wanted. And I did the W1A Zoom special — that was funny. None of my clothes are remotely like my character Tracey’s so I had to find something. I also imagined that Tracey’s life would be quite wild outside work and she’d like karaoke and a lot of beer so I tried to reflect that in the backgrounds.
Have you enjoyed being busy?
What’s exciting is the work has changed — we’d never have done Unprecedented in other circumstances. I’ve enjoyed the resourcefulness in terms of what drama work we can do but I think there’s a wider disconnect between people. Some people are going to be very bored, some are homeschooling, some are working harder than ever — I have one friend who is now working 18 hours a day as some industries are overloaded while others are shut down. Emotionally everyone’s in quite a different place. When we talk to each other, we can’t assume everyone is feeling the same way about things.
Have you been writing a follow-up to your debut play?
I’ve been doing bits of research but I’ve been busy doing Q&As with drama schools and publicity for the film Days Of The Bagnold Summer. We had a digital premiere followed by an online Q&A afterwards with the director and the other lead. I decided to get dressed up as it was a premiere — I was sitting at home on my sofa in a full-length sequinned blue gown and a fake fur doing this Q&A. I was completely overdressed. It seemed like a good idea at the time but when it finished I said goodbye to everyone, the screen went blank and I was sitting alone on my sofa in a sequined gown. The reality came crashing down. That was a bit strange so I FaceTimed a friend who was in bed in her pyjamas and she really laughed her head off at me.
What are you proudest of achieving in your career?
Writing my play The B*easts and taking it to the Edinburgh Festival and the Bush Theatre. I’d made a deal with myself to follow my instincts with it, even if other people were telling me to do it differently. It was an experience in following your little inner voice and finding out where it takes you. It felt like a journey that was true to me.
Where do you keep your Bafta and Olivier awards?
Some people keep them in the loo — I always think that’s a bit disingenuous. I keep mine on a shelf in my living room. Once you sit on the sofa both the Bafta and the Olivier are in your eyeline propping up some books. It means we have to have a conversation about them but they’re not ostentatiously placed.
■ Talking Heads is on iPlayer now