5 minutes with Janie Dee
Two-time Olivier Award-winning actress Janie Dee stars in Torben Betts' play Monogamy which comes to Richmond Theatre this month. She chats to Muddy about fame, family and favourite directors.
You’ve been treading the boards for more than 20 years playing all manner of roles. What attracted you to Caroline Mortimer?
Firstly, I was really interested to work with Torben Betts again on a text of his own making — I was in his version of The Seagull, so was excited to see what Monogamy would offer and how it would differ from our previous work together. Secondly, I was fascinated by Caroline’s multiple selves — as a public figure, a mother, a host, a wife, a daughter, a lover, a Christian believer. This seemed like a fascinating creative challenge.
How did the role come about?
It was the opening night of The Seagull at The Regents Park Open Air Theatre, and Torben and I were having a drink and a chat with his wife, and suddenly he turned to me and said: “Oh yeah, by the way, I’ve written you a play”. Well, it was late and he was more drunk than I was so I didn’t really think it was serious. But then he sent me through the first half a little later in that year and then continued to work on it for the last 3 years. It has been through many drafts but the one we are performing now is excellent. The part really does feel like it was written for me!! It’s incredibly resonant in some places.
Tell us about Caroline?
Caroline is a really complex person, who has come from humble beginnings to become, quite unexpectedly, a big commercial success as television chef, having been a stay-at- home Mum for many years. At the start of the play, she has a very successful public persona, but when the cameras stop rolling, her private life is on the verge of being out of control. She has had a dark and difficult childhood, and carries that with her always. She has recently rediscovered Christianity and so is trying, and sometimes failing, to balance her personal morality with her faith. She is striving to provide a ‘perfect’ home life for her family, and as the play develops, this starts to break down.
As an actress could you relate to Caroline’s life in the public eye?
Yes, I definitely can. Balancing one’s public career with one’s domestic life is always hard, no matter what field you work in, whether it’s food or theatre! It is something that Caroline and her family are grappling with for the first time, because when the play starts she hasn’t been in the public eye for very long.
Theatre seems you natural home, do you prefer it to the screen – or is this just how your career has panned out?
I feel very passionately about the theatre, and I’m sure I will always be interested in stage work, but my main focus is work that fascinates me, that is fresh and where the writing truly sings. That might be in film, TV or theatre, really.
You’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world – any favourites? Any funny stories?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had that, it’s true – but Peter Hall will always stand out for me, partly because he was such a master of language. He would ask incredibly detailed questions about individual words that would open up amazing possibilities from seemingly tiny details. Once I had been in rehearsals with Peter, getting on stage was easier than ever because he had given me a muscularity under my dialogue or monologue so I knew exactly what I was saying. Only once it backfired slightly, and only for a while, when he asked that we learn the words before Much Ado where I was playing Beatrice. It was wonderful! Knowing my lines on the first day! But we disagreed with the meaning because I had made up my mind about the language without him. I had to keep digging up my thoughts and re-thinking everything! It was harder! But we got there in the end.
Pinter didn’t direct me but I spent a lot of time with him whilst I was working on his plays. He would recite his latest poems to me which really only works when I tell it live! So you’ll have to come to my next cabaret!
I have spent a lot of time laughing with my directors but none more than Judi Dench who directed Romeo and Juliet at The Regents park Open Air Theatre. I used to have giggling fits in those days and she was absolutely no help — hiding behind her script to hide her own giggles!!!
Are you attracted to playing a particular role – the goodie or the baddie, for instance – you’ve certainly played many over the years. And is there a particular part you’d still like to get stuck into?
I think most characters fall between those two labels, and that’s what really interests me as a performer. Qualities and flaws in all human beings co-exist at the same time, so that’s the same in lots of theatre roles too, and makes for really interesting work.
Any habits, rituals or superstitions before you go on stage?
Time before a show is often at a premium, what with the various demands on everybody’s time, but I love yoga and will try to incorporate that into a warm up whenever I can. I like getting together with the company, and also to have some quiet time on my own looking at my script, getting my head out of the day’s business and into the work ahead.
How do you spend time when you’re not on stage?
Of course, I love being at home with my family, and it’s really special when we’re all together, as my oldest child is at university now whilst my younger one is still at school. I like to be active, to be seeing my loved ones as much as possible, and to be seeing and doing interesting things, eating well and being outside whenever I can.
How do you juggle touring with family life?
It’s always tricky to tour when you have a family, but I’m lucky to have supportive family and friends. I also commute home wherever possible, in order to get a bit of time with my family in the mornings and at the weekends.
Favourite film? The last film you saw?
Favourite film — The Intouchables…a French film about two guys who couldn’t be more different who become true friends. Latest film I saw was the new Avengers….I took my little boy to the Electric Cinema in Portobello and we LOVED the whole experience. Especially Robert Downey Junior!!
Favourite book? The last book you read?
I love The Prophet. It is very very special. So wise and a great help in moments of difficulty.
You were born in Old Windsor. Any favourite Berkshire / Surrey haunts?
I’m not local anymore, as I live in London now, but I will always have fond memories of the gorgeous countryside and beautiful riverside life that you can have in this area. We just played the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, which is right by the water, which was heaven when the sun was out and we were all able to eat and get together outside.
Monogamy is at Richmond Theatre from Mon 28 May – Sat 2 June. atgtickets.com