Shakespeare's King Lear is one of the most challenging and prestigious roles in theater — and one that's traditionally played by a man.
But now a new production of King Lear on Broadway stars Glenda Jackson in its title role. The British actor, who is 82, is fine with the gender bending casting.
"When we're born, we teach babies ... to be boys or girls," Jackson says. "As we get older, those absolute barriers that define gender begin to crack."
Over the course of her career, Jackson has won two Oscars, two Emmys and a Tony Award. But she still feels jitters about being onstage.
"It doesn't get any less," she says. "In fact, I think the more you do, the worse it gets, because you realize how desperately easy it is to act really badly and how very, very hard it is to act well."
From 1992 until 2015, Jackson took a break from acting to serve as a member of Parliament. She describes her time in public service as a "great privilege."
"That kind of responsibility is something that really makes you realize who you are — and you're pretty damn small," she says.
On the limited number of interesting roles available for women
What I really, really feel strongly about — and I wish I could come up with the reason for it — is why contemporary dramatists find women so boring! They are rarely — if ever — the driving dramatic engine of a play or a film and I don't know why that is. I mean, we are by no means equal as a gender, or certainly not worldwide, but there have been major improvements. Doors have opened for women that were firmly locked many decades ago. Why don't contemporary dramatists find us interesting?
On whether there are any lines from King Lear she finds particularly powerful
I try to avoid that. I try to observe the world through the character's eyes. But people who see the play do point out lines that are particularly meaningful to them. I always rather regret that they do that, because then it gets kind of stuck in my head and I have to find another way of finding it for the first time.
On growing up in a world that was 'entirely in the hands of the women'
I was 3 when [World War II] started and 9 when it finished, and it was a world which is entirely in the hands of the women, because the men had all gone away to fight. I didn't realize ... at the time ... how much women had actually done. And then, as in the first World War, when it was over, they were told to go away and do what women should normally do, which is just look after the kids and do the cooking.
Fortunately they didn't [do that]. ... I come from a socioeconomic group which if you didn't work, you didn't eat. So one of the things that I most valued that was given to me by my family was a strong work ethic, and I really, really do value that.
On serving in Parliament and meeting with her constituents
All members of Parliament hold what we call "advice surgeries," [one-on-one meetings] and you hold them in the constituency and any constituent can come in and they would. And in some instances, in the really serious ones, they sort of lay their life out on the table in front of you. You don't know them. They don't really know you, and not infrequently their lives are tragic or disastrous, through no fault of their own. And they come to their member of Parliament because that member of Parliament is their port of last resort. ... In my experience I didn't always get the result that my constituent wanted, but without exception — whether I did or whether I didn't — they always said, "Thank you." And that is very, very humbling.
On a speech she gave in Parliament in 2013 after Margaret Thatcher died, in which she equated Thatcherism with "greed" and "selfishness"
I'd sat there in the chamber for several hours as one does for these kind of events before I was called by the speaker. And yes, I mean I sat there listening to her party rewriting history as far as I was concerned. The United Kingdom that they were describing under Thatcher was not the one I'd lived in. It wasn't the one my constituents lived in. And it certainly isn't the one that was there when she left! ... I would have been ashamed if I hadn't spoken having been given the opportunity by the speaker. ...
When I went home, my son was standing on the front doorsteps, and he said, "Your speech has gone viral." Now, I'm a Luddite when it comes to artificial intelligence, so I don't know what "going viral" means. He explained to me, and I think it was something like a million people tuned in.
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Glenda Jackson, is starring on Broadway in a new production of "King Lear," one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. Jackson plays Lear, giving her the opportunity to take on one of the most challenging and prestigious roles in theater history, but it's a role that, for obvious reasons, always goes to a man. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote, "she is delivering a powerful and deeply perceptive performance as the most royally demented of Shakespeare's monarchs," unquote.
"King Lear" opened on Broadway this month, but Jackson had already played Lear in a London production that opened in 2016 at The Old Vic. Last year she won a Tony for her performance in the Edward Albee play, "Three Tall Women."
It's been an incredible return to acting, after serving 23 years as a Member of Parliament. She was elected in 1992 and stepped down in 2015. Her career before that included Oscar-winning performances in the 1969 movie "Women In Love" and the 1973 romantic comedy "A Touch Of Class." She won two Emmys playing Queen Elizabeth I in the 1971 BBC series "Elizabeth R," which was shown in the U.S. as part of "Masterpiece Theatre."
Let's start with a clip from the new Broadway production of "King Lear." Lear has decided that he's old, and it's time to unburden himself of his responsibilities as king and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KING LEAR")
GLENDA JACKSON: (As King Lear) Know we have divided in three our kingdom, and 'tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we, unburdened, crawl toward death (laughter).
GROSS: Glenda Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JACKSON: Thank you.
GROSS: The first thing people always seem to want to know is, why is a woman playing King Lear, and what's it like to be a woman playing Lear? So you first played him in 2016 at The Old Vic in London. Why did you want to play Lear?
JACKSON: Who would refuse the opportunity to work in a play of that stature (laughter)? I mean, it is such an extraordinary play, like all Shakespeare. Essentially, he only asks us three questions - who are we, what are we, why are we? And this particular play - it's just astonishing - human nature is immutable, and so in a sense, it is the most contemporary play around at the minute. We in England had been engaged in a kind of gender-bender war, really, and the marvelous company that was created and succeeded in winning those battles, they did all of Shakespeare's histories with all-woman casts. So in a sense, that battle was over. And what was really - one of the really interesting things for me playing it was that nobody ever mentioned the fact that I was a woman playing a man, having seen the play.
And also, the other interesting thing I found in doing it - when I was a Member of Parliament, part of my duties was to visit old people's homes, day centers - things of that nature. And as we get older, those absolute barriers that define gender begin to crack; they begin to get a little bit foggy and break up. And if you think about it, I mean, when we're born, we teach babies - don't we? - to be boys or girls. As we get older, we begin to explore, I think, rather more the alternatives to our defined gender, and that's certainly, for "Lear," is quite useful.
GROSS: I want you to elaborate a little bit on how you see gender boundaries blurring or falling away with age and to apply it to your own life, as well, if you find it applicable.
JACKSON: Well, I think I'm a bit of a cheat because when things are tough in a kind of direct way in my real life, I don't have any qualms about playing the old card - do you know what I mean? - I mean, certainly as far as our underground is concerned. Young people do get up and offer me a seat. The first time it happened, I felt absolutely mortified. I now am beginning to get to the stage where I expect it and am mortified if it doesn't happen, but 9 times out of 10, it does.
But in direct reference to the play, the things that he kicks out being - you know, he's a guy - no one during his entire life - and he's 80 years old in this play - has ever said no to him. And suddenly, someone does say no to him, and it all begins to crack for him - not in that immediate moment, but that's the story of the play. And so those aspects of him which were overtly masculine - because that was the era in which he lived, the environment in which he lived - begin to move from absolute, I'm right and everybody else is wrong - that's a simplistic way of putting it - to actually evaluating whether he was always right. And he begins to doubt it, and that's very interesting.
GROSS: Are there lines from "Lear" that have the most meaning to you, either personally or that you find most powerful or dramatic to say as an actor?
JACKSON: I try to avoid that. I try to observe the world through the character's eyes. But people who see the play do point out lines that are particularly meaningful to them. I always rather regret that they do that because then it gets kind of stuck in my head, and I have to find another way of finding it for the first time, if you see what I mean. But there are amazing...
GROSS: I think I do - that you don't want it to sound like a famous line; you want it to sound like speech.
JACKSON: It is a thought.
GROSS: Like thought or speech, yeah.
JACKSON: It's - you know, it's a direct thought. I mean, it's - it arises out of the scene that you're trying to create with the other actors on the stage, yeah.
JACKSON: But, I mean, you know, in one's own time, there are lines that sort of reverberate and echo, yeah.
GROSS: Psychiatrists have tried to diagnose Lear.
GROSS: Like, is this dementia related to age? Is it some other kind of, like, cognitive disorder? Is it manic depression? You can read all kinds of things that psychiatrists have said. I know you try to be inside the character, not outside the character. Nevertheless, do you think what he's experiencing is the onset of age-related dementia?
JACKSON: I would think it was somewhat unlikely, given the time in which it was written. I have - you know, I mean, gosh, Shakespeare is, in my view, the most contemporary writer there is. But I think at the time the play was written, people living to the age of 80 would have been a fairly rare occurrence. But nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that - as I've said, you know, I've seen it; as we get older, those kind of gender barriers begin to crack.
But also, people must have experienced what we are experiencing now, as we are living to much greater age, of the mixture of what is physical and mental decay. And it is, in fact, I think, a big, black hole for most Western democracies - how are we going to cope with this? Because certainly, if I look at my own country, we now have a much larger nonworking - by virtue of age and retirement - population than a working population. How are we going to look after our elderly if we are all going to go down that road? I know we're not all going to go down that road. And there will be, I have no doubt, advances in medical science. But you know, it is something that I think we're still tending to think it'll be all right on the night, and it ain't.
GROSS: So there's - the language, of course, is as written. But in the production that you're in now, you spend part of the play wearing a tuxedo, as do other male characters. The costumes are pretty contemporary. The furniture is kind of, contemporary. So you have this mix of the original hundreds of years old text and, you know, contemporary updating that we physically see. There's also music by Philip Glass, who is, you know, a very 20th- and 21st-century composer.
How do you feel about that coming together of, you know, the old text with aspects of...
JACKSON: Well, you say the old text. Forgive me for interrupting you. But there was a celebration a few years ago - I can't remember what it was - well, either it was Shakespeare's birth or Shakespeare's death. I can't remember. And my grandson's school, they're there from the age of 3 until 11. But I think they were about 7 when they did this, the school's celebration of Shakespeare in that way.
The teachers went round with their mobile phones, you know, with the cameras on them. And each class had to - had - were given specifically a line from Shakespeare to say into the camera. And this was compiled into a film, which was delightful.
Those children had absolutely no difficulty saying any of those lines because the majority of them are part and parcel our everyday language now. I mean, just think of the stuff that he wrote and how we use it, I mean, within the play. I'm transferring it around - forget and forgive, her price has fallen. I mean, you know, that guy was just incredible.
GROSS: So we've been talking about you playing King Lear. Let's hear you as Queen Elizabeth I in an excerpt of your Emmy Award-winning performance in the BBC series "Elizabeth R," which came to the U.S. as part of "Masterpiece Theatre."
So in this scene, you're the new queen. You're 25 years old and unmarried, and your council is trying to pressure you to marry quickly. A member of your council challenges you to accept a suitor in front of a whole court. And by the end of the scene, everyone around you is kneeling.
And here is my guest Glenda Jackson with actor Esmond Knight.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELIZABETH R")
ESMOND KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The Archduke Charles will be most happy to come to England, Your Majesty.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) And I shall be most happy to see him.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) But if he comes, he will come here as your future husband.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Oh, well, as to that...
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Anything else would be unthinkable.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have often told the imperial ambassador...
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The imperial ambassador does not know Your Majesty as well as I do.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) But he knows how to listen.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The true ambassador, Your Majesty, listens to what is meant and not only to what is said.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Then I will say again and mean it - the Archduke Charles may come to England as our guest.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) As your guest and as the husband of your choice.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have not said that.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) But you have invited the Archduke Charles to your court.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have said he is welcome.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Very welcome, Your Majesty, I hope.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Welcome as any other guest would be.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) I am glad to hear it. I shall write to King Philip and tell him that you have invited the Archduke Charles to England and that he comes here as your future husband.
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) If he comes on those terms, he had best not come at all.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Your Highness...
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) He said he wished to come here. I have never invited him. I have never said I would marry him. I have never said I would marry anyone - never.
KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Your Majesty...
JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Enough.
GROSS: That was a scene from "Elizabeth R" with my guest Glenda Jackson.
So we've heard you as King Lear; we've heard you as Queen Elizabeth. Having played, you know, a fictional king and portrayed an actual queen, did it make you think of gender differences between kings and queens?
JACKSON: Oh, well, very much so because - certainly as far as Elizabeth was concerned. I mean, let's face it. She'd had the most tumultuous upbringing. Hadn't she? I mean, her mother's head was chopped off when she - Elizabeth - I think was 3. She had all these various stepmothers after, a couple of whom also went the way of all flesh at the hands of her father. Her sister, who took over the throne, was not particularly in favor of her. And there was always this pressure upon her, once she did become queen, to marry to ensure that her line continued.
And one of her extraordinary strengths, it seems to me - having read the histories in one thing and another - was that her great strength was that she didn't make a fast decision, which is in marked contrast to what Lear does. She would vacillate. She would put things off. She would delay stuff. And then if something happened like, for example, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and her execution, she would blame everybody around her for having done something that she claimed she didn't want to happen.
Now, she wasn't lying when she said she didn't want it to happen. She didn't want it to happen. And yet, there must have been part of her that knew that it had to happen. But of course, it was taking away the divine right of kings even though, at that time, the ruler was a queen.
GROSS: We need to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson. She's now starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." We'll be right back.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FENTON'S "IN CARE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson, who's starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." And she spent 23 years as a Member of Parliament. And shortly after leaving Parliament, she played Lear on the London stage. And now there's a different production on Broadway in which, again, she is Lear.
So you've played kings and queens; you've served in Parliament. You were elected to Parliament in 1992. You've played powerful people, and you've had political power - not kingly or queenly power. But (laughter)...
JACKSON: No, no, no, no. No, no, no. Backbenches - I cannot stress this strongly enough. For me, one of the most humbling experiences was being a Member of Parliament. I mean, I give you - I mean, obviously I think it's amazing that somebody puts an X next to your name. It's not just you, of course. I mean, they obviously support your party and, hopefully, that party's manifesto.
But all Members of Parliament hold what we call advice surgeries, and you hold them in the constituency. And any constituent can come in, and they would. And in some instances, they - well, in the really serious ones, they sort of lay their life out on the table in front of you. You don't know them. They don't really know you. And not infrequently, their lives are tragic or disastrous through no fault of their own. And they come to their Member of Parliament because their Member of Parliament is their port of last resort. You can get a response to a letter, and people will ring you on the phone.
In my experience, I didn't always get the result that my constituent wanted. But without exception, whether I did or whether I didn't, they always said thank you. And that is very, very humbling. And it is a great privilege to be elected, to be a Member of Parliament. And that kind of responsibility is something that really makes you realize who you are. And you're pretty damn small.
GROSS: Yes. OK. I can see what you're saying. You're helping people with constituent services and things like that. But you also stood up against the Iraq War when Tony Blair...
JACKSON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...Joined with President George W. Bush. So like, you stood up to power in a way that's different from, you know, being an actor. I mean, sure. You might want to stand up and object to direction that you're getting, but it's different than standing up to a prime minister who wants to take your country to war.
JACKSON: Well, as I've had occasion to say, it was the first time in my experience of being a Member of Parliament that I had voted against my party's policy. And I presume, rather like murder, once you do it for the first time, it gets easier after.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why did you want to serve in Parliament?
JACKSON: Anything I could have done - I mean, I was a member. I've always voted Labour. I've been asked by the party to do various things for them, raise money. I once did the worst party political broadcast ever, things of that nature. And I'd been approached by various constituency parties to consider standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate. And in '92, the election was looming. And I think it was in 1989 I was approached by Hampstead and Highgate, which did indeed become my constituency.
Anything I could have done that was legal that got Margaret Thatcher and her government out of office, I was prepared to have a go at. I didn't expect to be selected. I don't think I really expected to win, but we did win that seat. We didn't win the majority to put us into government until '97. But yeah, that's why.
GROSS: What made you...
JACKSON: This woman - this woman who said, what had the suffragettes ever done for her? That question, whether there was such a thing as a society - that had destroyed local government in many ways, which before her power seat, if that's what it was, you know, was responsible for delivering services to people in local environments.
Every school in what became my constituency spent - the teachers, parents, not infrequently the pupils - spent spare time trying to raise money to buy things like paper and pencils. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that was the case. Books - you go into school library - I mean, there were these books that were falling apart or if they were being held together, it was by a bit of wallpaper that the teacher had wrapped it in and stuck down with sellotape. The NHS was being attempted to be restructured...
GROSS: The National Health Service.
GROSS: As a woman who feels strongly about women's equality - and I assume you consider yourself a feminist - was it disappointing to you that finally a woman becomes prime minister and she's so conservative and stands for so many things that you are against?
JACKSON: Well, I mean, the overwhelming disappointment, actually, was that my party didn't win - I mean, generally, I mean, even - I mean, at that time. But it was just that she seemed to me to be so out of touch with what were the realities of life for the majority of people in my country.
And yes, of course, it was a disappointment that the first woman elected as prime minister was her. But I think rather more, at the time, it was that she was a conservative - it was only of the years that one saw what were, for me, disastrous policies wreaking such damage.
GROSS: My guest is Glenda Jackson. She's starring on Broadway in a new production of "King Lear" in the role of Lear. After a break, we'll hear how she was jeered in Parliament for her comments after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN MCPARTLAND'S "LIZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Glenda Jackson. She's starring on Broadway in "King Lear," playing Lear. It opened last month, but she'd already played Lear in London in a different production that opened in 2016. Last year, she won a Tony for her performance in Edward Albee's play "Three Tall Women." These performances were her return to acting after spending 23 years as a Member of Parliament in the Labour Party.
Let's hear what you had to say in Parliament after Margaret Thatcher died, and this was in 2013. And there were many tributes made in Parliament. And this was a day, I think, when most of the Labour Members of Parliament stayed away. And so Conservative members were saying, you know, giving many tributes to Margaret Thatcher. And then you stood up (laughter) and made a pretty scathing speech while Conservative Members of Parliament basically jeered you. So let's hear what you had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JACKSON: We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice - and I still regard them as vices - under Thatcherism was, in fact, a virtue - greed, selfishness...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling).
JACKSON: ...No care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees. They were the way forward. We've heard much of and will continue to hear over the next week of...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling).
JACKSON: ...The barriers that were broken down by Thatcherism, the establishment that was destroyed...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We can't take it.
JACKSON: ...what we actually saw - the word that has been circling around with stars around it is that she created an aspirational society. It aspired for things as, indeed, one of the former prime ministers - who himself had been elevated to the House of Lords - spoke about selling off the family silver and people knowing under those years the price of everything and the value of nothing.
What concerns me is that I am beginning to see, possibly, the re-emergence of that total traducing of what I regard as being the basis spiritual nature of this country, where we do care about society, where we do believe in communities, where we do not leave people to walk by on the other side. That isn't happening now.
GROSS: So did you expect that reaction when you decided to make those comments?
JACKSON: Oh, yes, of course. I mean, I'd sat there in the chamber for several hours, as one does for these kind of events, before I was called by the speaker. And yes, I mean, I sat there listening to her party rewriting history, as far as I was concerned. The United Kingdom that they were describing under Thatcher was not the one I'd lived in. It wasn't the one my constituents lived in. And it certainly isn't the one that was there when she left.
GROSS: So you stepped down from Parliament in 2015. So you've been gone for, you know, a few years. Right now - like, the issue that is preoccupying England is, of course, Brexit. Do you feel like England is falling apart during this period of paralysis and all the fears of what the consequences could be if England leaves the EU - especially if it leaves without a deal?
JACKSON: Well, I don't feel that the country is falling apart, but I certainly think Parliament has lost its reason. I just - there are small clips that one sees on the television here in New York, mostly of prime minister's question times in the House of Commons or Mrs. May-Yet-Again (ph) coming back from Europe with some ideas. And I sit there and I look. And a lot of those faces, I know. They are people I know. And I think, what in the name of all that is holy are you doing? They have simply lost it, and they have to get their heads back (laughter) in shape and realize that we cannot crash out without a deal. That would just be disastrous.
And they are going to have to, at some point, set aside what seems to be either party-political vicissitudes or their own personal view of staying or leaving and concentrate on what is best for the country. And what is best for the country is a deal. We had a referendum. You can argue until the cows come home. There should never have been a referendum on that issue. I would probably argue for that because I would like us to stay.
But the country's democratic decision was to leave. And Parliament's bound and duty, it seems to me, is to deliver that for the country but deliver it to the best possible means for the country after we're out. And they're not doing that at the moment, I can tell you.
GROSS: Would you like to see a new referendum? Some people say...
JACKSON: No. No, what is the point in that? I mean, we had a referendum. So say you have a second referendum. What's to stop somebody saying, OK then, let's have a third, or the best of five, or 15 or 25? The country made a decision. The argument that is being put forward by some at the moment is the country made the decision out of total ignorance. So what? I mean, that was its decision. We can't roll the clock back. We have to roll it forward.
GROSS: Did you miss acting while you were in Parliament?
JACKSON: Oh, no. No, acting only exists when you do it. So if you're not doing it, there's nothing to miss.
GROSS: Wait a minute. I miss things I'm not doing.
JACKSON: Like what?
GROSS: Oh, I miss seeing friends...
JACKSON: That's somewhat different (laughter).
GROSS: ...who I don't see. You know, I mean, we all miss things that we're not doing. And we miss them because we're not doing them, so...
JACKSON: But the doing is dependent on so much more than telephoning your friend. I mean, this is a process outside of which you are. I mean, the creation of what, hopefully, someone will suggest you do is outside your remit. And so that's why I say unless you're doing it, there's nothing to miss.
GROSS: OK. Let me rephrase this. Did you ever miss the process of getting into a character, learning the role, thinking about the role, thinking about the intentions of the character and interacting with other actors on a set or on stage to create a scene, to create a movie or a play?
JACKSON: Well, that would presuppose I had nothing to do other than think about I had nothing to do. But I do assure you being a constituency Member of Parliament is a 24/7 job. And what comes through the mail, off the computer, via the phone - I mean, they can be transfixing.
GROSS: OK. Let me ask this one (laughter) - see how you respond to this. Do you - now that you're acting again, do you miss being a Member of Parliament?
JACKSON: Not at the present time because of the Brexit quagmire that Callinan (ph)...
JACKSON: ...Has managed to put us in. But I do miss my constituency, yes, and I miss the people, you know, that I knew there. It was a really interesting constituency to represent.
GROSS: So it seems like you thought about the possibility of serving in Parliament or doing some kind of public service work back in the '70s. I'm going to play an excerpt of a 1976 interview; you were interviewed by Colin Grimshaw. This excerpt starts with him asking you about what was then your latest film, "Nasty Habits," based on a novel by Muriel Sparks (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COLIN GRIMSHAW: Were you the person who initiated the film?
JACKSON: It was sent to me with the idea of it making a very good film and making a very good film with lots of good women's parts in it, which is rare.
GRIMSHAW: Are you waving the flag for women's lib, then? Because they're all have been women...
JACKSON: Waving it? I mean, I'll poke it in your eye.
GRIMSHAW: (Laughter) When you're doing work on stage, do you often get nervous?
JACKSON: Always, always.
GRIMSHAW: Why? Because it just happens?
JACKSON: Because I think the longer you act, the more you realize you don't know, and the possibilities for making the wrong choices are much greater than the probabilities of making the right ones. And that sort of fear is something that you probably learn to control better, but it doesn't grow any less.
GRIMSHAW: You have said in the past that you might give up acting and take up social work. Would you do this?
JACKSON: Yes, because - I mean, certainly, the life of an actress in films is very short, and in the theater, there's a terrible trough when there are no parts worth playing, I mean, until you sort of hit about 60, and then there are a few sort of cracking character parts. And I really can't see myself hanging around for 20 years waiting to play an old biddy in something, and I certainly don't see myself sitting at home just, you know, polishing the furniture.
GRIMSHAW: But couldn't you see yourself coming back to acting?
JACKSON: Not really, no.
GROSS: OK, the one thing that sounds wrong in that is that you did come back to acting.
GROSS: But everything you say in that sounds, like, so contemporary - a shortage of roles for women, especially at certain ages; the difficulties...
JACKSON: Well, that is an absolute; that has not changed during my experience of, you know, acting.
GROSS: So in that interview clip, you obviously feel strongly about the women's movement - or women's lib, as he called it. How...
JACKSON: No. What I really, really feel strongly about - and I wish I could come up with a reason for it...
JACKSON: ...Is why contemporary dramatists find women so boring. They are rarely, if ever, the driving dramatic engine of a play or a film or - you know. And I don't know why that is. I mean, we are by no means equal as a gender or, certainly, not worldwide, but there have been major improvements; doors have opened for women that were firmly locked many decades ago. Why don't contemporary dramatists find this interesting? But they don't.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson, and she's now starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FENTON'S "IN CARE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson. She's now starring on Broadway in "King Lear." She plays Lear. And she spent 23 years as a Member of Parliament, and shortly after leaving Parliament, she got the role of King Lear on the London stage, and now there's a different production on Broadway in which, again, she is Lear. And last year she won a Tony Award for her performance in "Three Tall Women" on Broadway.
You grew up - part of your childhood, anyways, was spent in a home run by women during World War II, when the men were...
GROSS: ...Fighting the war. So I think it was, like, your mother and your aunts - her sisters. What were the war years like for you, and how old were you during World War II?
JACKSON: Well, I was 3 when it started and 9 when it finished, and it was a world which was entirely in the hands of the women because the men had all gone away to fight. And I mean, I didn't realize it at the time - it's post- that, a long post after it ended - was that, you know, how much women had actually done. And then, as in the first world war, when it was over, they were told to go away and do what women should normally do, which is just look after the kids and do the cooking; fortunately, they didn't (laughter).
GROSS: So did you grow up with this understanding that women could be strong, women could run things because they were?
JACKSON: Not when I was a child, but that realization was some - let me put it another way. I come from a socioeconomic group which, if you didn't work, you didn't eat. So one of the things that I most value that was given to me by my family was a strong work ethic, and I really, really do value that.
GROSS: Were you afraid of being bombed during the war years?
JACKSON: I can't remember directly being afraid, as a child, of being bombed. We had - when the sirens went off, we went under the cupboard under our stairs, in our little two-up and two-down. And where we lived was - never actually had a bomb dropped on it, but we could see Liverpool just across the river. And I can remember now the great clouds of smoke that you saw because Liverpool was absolutely pasted by German bombers. I remember when we were all issued with gas masks. And I think it must have been my second sister, who was still a baby. And they had gas masks that sort of - you put the baby in - do you know what I mean? - whereas we older children had gas masks that went over our faces. But it was just part of what you did. I mean, I have no memory of being afraid.
GROSS: So you didn't think like - oh, I might die?
JACKSON: Good heavens, no.
JACKSON: The biggest thing was there were no sweets.
GROSS: You endured that (laughter).
JACKSON: I have to say here, we did have - not my side of the street, the other side of our street - American troops billeted there. And these guys - when it was Victory in Europe Day, we had a big street party. You know, people brought the tables out, put the table cloth down, chairs around. These guys brought can after can after can of ice cream from their PX where they were billeted. We'd never seen ice cream. I mean, I didn't like the taste of it. I think most of it was eaten by the females around the table. And they would send us care packages for years after they'd gone back to America. I mean, you really are the most amazingly generous, kind people.
GROSS: Well, thank you, for that generalization about all of us.
JACKSON: Well, it was a specific time, but I remember that very well.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson. She's now starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." So one of the productions you were in with the Royal Shakespeare Company was "Marat/Sade."
GROSS: "The Assassination And Persecution Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade."
JACKSON: That's the one.
GROSS: And this moved to Broadway where I saw you in it in, I think was, 1967 or '68. Who remembers what year it was. It was one of those, but...
JACKSON: Certainly not me. It was around that time. Yeah.
GROSS: I just loved it. And, I mean, it was kind of a musical. It wasn't, like, a song and dance kind of musical, but there were songs in it. And people might remember that on Judy Collins' album "In My Life," she sang a medley of some of the songs from "Marat/Sade." I'm wondering what that production was like for you. Was it the most experimental thing you'd been in up to that?
JACKSON: Oh, no, no. I mean, working with Brook was always experimental. The first time I worked with him, it was amazing - I mean, you know, just the greatest director in the world. What was shocking to us as a company was we had played that play in repertoire with the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre in London to absolute silence. There was not a sound from the audience for any of the performances until they applauded at the end. We do our first show here on Broadway. The first song got applause, cries of encore, encore. The audience laughed, I have to say, in all the right places, were silent in all the right places. And we as a company came off saying to ourselves, what are we in? What are we doing here? And it was just amazing. It was really thrilling.
GROSS: Now, you had said, and we heard this earlier, that you always get nervous before going on stage.
JACKSON: Yes, yes.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if that's changed with age in the sense that - I know some people feel as they get older that they can take more chances and enjoy things more because...
JACKSON: I did a play with the most marvelous actress called Mona Washbourne. It was called "Stevie." It was about the poet Stevie Smith. And she, I think - Mona came, I think, from a theatrical family. She'd certainly appeared, I think, on a professional stage at a very young age. I mean, 8 or 9. She had a very successful, highly honored career. I mean, she was a marvelous, marvelous actress. Her reputation in theater was absolutely secure. She sat on the sofa before the curtain went up. I sat on a chair by her side. And every performance, she sat on that sofa, and she would say, please, God, let me die. Please, God, let me die. And then the curtain went up, and there she was, firing on all fronts. It doesn't get any less. In fact, I think, the more you do, the worse it gets because you realize how desperately easy it is to act really badly and how very, very hard it is to act well.
GROSS: We need to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson. She's now starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO AND RAVA QUARTET'S "L'AVVENTURA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Glenda Jackson, who's starring on Broadway as King Lear in "King Lear." Last year, she won a Tony Award for her performance in "Three Tall Women," an Edward Albee play. And she played Lear on the London stage just before coming or shortly before coming to New York to do it here.
I want to go back to something again from earlier in your career. And this is from "Sunday Bloody Sunday," a film from the 1970s that was directed by John Schlesinger. And this film is famous in part because there's a gay relationship in it. And it's very early for a gay relationship in the movies. So the film is kind of about a love triangle. You're a young woman who's having a relationship with a guy who's an artist. And that guy is in a relationship with an older man, who's a doctor who's played by Peter Finch. And so you all know about each other. But the guy, the artist - the young guy is kind of going back and forth between the other man he's in a relationship with and with you.
And at some point, the guy in the middle is about to leave from London for a trip to New York for artistic opportunities. You're not sure he's ever going to come back. And this is the scene where you start to just be sorry about how things are turning out, and you're expressing your kind of sadness and your sense, like, this is just, like, never going to work. So here's my guest Glenda Jackson with Murray Head.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY")
MURRAY HEAD: (As Bob Elkin) Nothing's changed.
JACKSON: (As Alex Greville) I've changed - all this fitting in and making do and shutting up. I won't be here when you get back. I can't come over. Don't ring. We've got to pack this in, and I don't know what else to say.
HEAD: (As Bob Elkin) Alex...
JACKSON: (As Alex Greville) Me being careful not to ask you about Daniel, Daniel not getting answers from you because you're here, my old mum not making demands for umpteen years and my [expletive] office - I don't want us to live like this.
HEAD: (As Bob Elkin) Well, shall we try living together? Shall we try that? I don't want to lose you.
JACKSON: (As Alex Greville) Darling, you couldn't do it. Whenever there's any trouble, you always - oh, damn. I'm not angry with you. I bought it because I love you. I bought your terms, and they were rotten terms. And I shouldn't have done it - my fault.
HEAD: (As Bob Elkin) You keep asking too much.
JACKSON: (As Alex Greville) For God's sake, caring a lot about someone - is that too much? People who have some time for each other - is that too much? Now, I've had this business - anything is better than nothing. There are times when nothing has to be better than anything. If you look back on this - which you won't - you'll think it has something to do with Daniel. Well, it hasn't.
GROSS: That's an interesting scene because you're in a moment of sadness and maybe weakness 'cause you don't have control of what he's going to do, and you know the relationship is probably going to end. But you're speaking with real strength, even as you sob.
JACKSON: Well, yes. She's not stupid. It was instantly the best film script I've ever read and - 'cause working with John was marvelous. But she has that great gift, in a way, of not - of no self-delusion.
GROSS: One of the things that made this movie famous and one of the reasons it continues to be famous is because it's one of the first films that has, you know, a gay relationship within it and a gay kiss, as well. So I'm wondering what that meant to you at the time as somebody in, you know, what was considered a pretty groundbreaking film.
JACKSON: Well, no, it wasn't at the time because the studios that made it - I think they thought John was making another "Midnight Cowboy." And when they actually saw it, they didn't know how to sell it. They didn't know what to do with it. I mean, I remember I was in Venice picking up an award for something. And I was sitting on the beach with my husband, and this guy came up and was chatting, obviously, Venice Film Festival. And he said that he was the PR man for the studio, and it - for "Sunday Bloody Sunday" - and he was having great difficulty because the Vatican apparently had issued an edict saying, this film should not be seen. And, of course, he said there is no homosexuality in Italy. Well, you know, there you go.
So it's become, I think, now, something of a cult. It is a very, very good film - as I've said, the best film script I've ever read. And Schlesinger was just such a lovely film director.
GROSS: So, I mean, you are so work-oriented. Parliament was just, like, a more-than-full-time job for you - ditto with acting and now, certainly, doing "Lear." How do you feel about the possibility of retirement?
JACKSON: Well, if I don't get offered to work, then I'll be retired - and fair enough. You know, I've had a good run.
GROSS: What do you think you would want to do with your time?
JACKSON: (Laughter) Well, I like gardening. And I'm a grandma, so I get grandma duty, which is an interesting experience.
GROSS: Is it different than being a parent?
GROSS: Are you enjoying it more?
JACKSON: You can send them home.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, it's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.
JACKSON: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Glenda Jackson is now starring in a new Broadway production of "King Lear" in the role of Lear. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about psychiatry search to understand the biological basis of mental illness. My guest will be Harvard professor Anne Harrington, author of the new book "Mind Fixers," about how that search led to new classes of drugs. But she says pharmaceutical companies are leaving the psychiatric field, and we're at a turning point in how we treat mental illness. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.