Liz White has returned to the stage with a new adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Electra, which sees her star alongside Kristin Scott Thomas.
We caught up the actress to chat about the play as well as the television and film success that she has enjoyed this year with Our Zoo and Pride.
- You are about to return to the stage with new play Electra, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Electra is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles and has been adapted by Frank McGuuinness. There was a huge production about twenty years ago with Zoe Wanamaker, which toured all around the world, but this time, Kristin Scott Thomas is playing Electra and I am playing her sister.
Electra is a character whose mother and stepfather murdered her real father Agamemnon when she was a child. Her younger brother was carried away and she hasn’t seen him for years, while Electra and her sister are trapped in this house with their mother and stepfather, knowing that they killed their father.
It is a story of loss, vengeance, rebellion, pain, heartache and longing (laughs). Because of Kristin’s really playful way, there are touches of humour and this is a really modern take on the story. We have been finding that there are an extraordinary amount of laughs from the audience; when there is so much pain going on, the audience do need a bit of relief.
As I say, Kristin is so playful in the way that she does it; they seem like really true characters rather than these untouchable and mythical people.
- Electra is based on the Sophocles tragedy, so what was it about the script and the character that made you want to tackle this stage project?
To me, it is one of the first incarnations of a freethinking, free-speaking, free-doing woman - it was written in 490 BC and here we are putting it on the stage in 2014, and it is just as relevant. The pain of this woman is articulated so brilliantly. And it is not just Electra; it is the mother as well.
It is a play with three brilliant female characters in it, and the chorus are women as well and they are supporting Electra’s part on stage all of the time; they are like the conscience of the public jury. It was just teeming with female expression and longing that I just thought ‘oh my god, I would just at the chance to do that.’
Kristin Scott Thomas is one of my favourite actresses of all time, I have watched her films for years but I have never seen her on the stage. I always thought that I would never be able to get a ticket when she was in London, and there I am playing alongside her. It really is just a thrilling prospect and I am very lucky and glad to be in it.
- Ian Rickson is the director of Electra, so how are you finding working with him? And how are rehearsals going so far?
Rehearsals have been brilliant - we have finished with them now and have been previewing for about a week. Ian Rickson has been so gorgeous to work with because he is such a generous director. He listens to everyone’s ideas and never makes you feel stupid, even if it is probably a bad idea. He is also very encouraging when you do have a very good idea.
Ian is really open and that makes you have a sense of freedom when you are in the rehearsal room, which is really important because then your subconscious speaks without you controlling it or editing it. I was able to go to a place of no thought, which is really good because it is just your instincts working and that is what happens when you get freedom of expression, and that is really exciting.
- During your career, we have seen you move between the different mediums, so how does theatre compare to TV and film?
The theatre is a brilliant place to play because you get rehearsal time where no one, apart from the cast and the crew, are watching. You are not thinking about the audience and you get to unearth and unpick this piece of writing without having an outside eye on it, which is really useful.
In TV and film, if you do get rehearsal time, it is often three to give days, which isn’t really enough; it is usually only enough time to bond with the people you are acting with and the director.
However, you don’t always need rehearsal in TV because it is good to have that spontaneity because they are often more plot driven as opposed to character driven. I enjoy each medium for different reasons, but I really do enjoy the rehearsal time of theatre work.
- Away from Electra, you are currently enjoying huge TV success with Our Zoo, so how did that project come around?
Yeah (laughs). As with most actors - unless you are Helen Mirren - you agent gets you an audition, you read the script, you go along, and you do your best interpretation of the part. Luckily, I had worked with the director before on a series called A Think Called Love ten years ago, and the producer was a line producer on Life On Mars, so that probably helped me get in the door.
I loved the story and it is great to involved in a piece of TV that didn’t involve murder or crime (laughs). It really was a fulfilling story.
- You take on the role of Lizzie Mottershead in the series, so how familiar were you with this family's story? And what sort of research did you do as you were preparing for the role?
I wasn’t familiar with the story at all and didn’t know about the family. I went to Chester Zoo when I was a student n Liverpool and probably read the placards then tell you everything about what happened but didn’t retain the information.
When I was offered the job, I bought June Mottershead’s book - she actually has an updated version of the book coming out - where she talked about her childhood living in the zoo.
When Lee (Ingleby) and I were driving up to Manchester to start the job, we called in at Chester Zoo, we went round to June’s house and her son George was there, and they took us around the zoo for the afternoon. They talked to us about the family and little bits of the script are different from the real story and which bits were really true - that was really useful.
We found out really good piece of information like in real life, Lizzie was ten years older than George and she was brought up on the farm; she had experience of animals and was a little bit worldlier in a way than George.
She was really the rock of the family, and while George often gets the praise, she and the children worked so hard behind the scenes to make it happen. And that was one of the things that was important to June and that she wanted to see told in the story. Which I think is great because so often men get the credit and they are the front of everything as if they magically do it by themselves, and it is just not true (laughs).
- They always say never work with animals or children - you worked with both on Our Zoo - so how was the filming experience?
It was great actually. The animals were fantastically behaved and so were the children… the adults however, (laughs) they would spend all day having a laugh. The animals were brilliant and endlessly fascinating; you could never get bored because in between takes and scenes you would talk to the animal handlers and learn a little bit more about birds or camels. It was really fun.
The weather was also great and we were outside a lot. In terms of your day-to-day working environment, it was a really beautiful time of year and we were amongst nature. I live in London, and it really is easy to deprive yourself of natural stimulation - it is a concrete jungle you - but you go up to Cheshire and find yourself in these stunning stately homes and the grounds. It really was great.
- Pride has also been a huge big screen success, you must be thrilled with the way the film has been received - everyone is just heaping praise on it?
Yes I am. What is wonderful is that writer Stephen Beresford was told this story years ago and he didn’t believe it. But when he went to research it, he found that it was true and went on to write the story about it. So many people, unless you were a staunch gay lefty in the eighties - you probably don’t know about the story - so many people from that period have never heard about it.
It is such a wonderful story of human kindness and solidarity it was just wonderful. It is also great timing with the election next year and the referendum that has just occurred, hopefully there is a sense of empowerment coming back to people to reassure them that your vote does count, your political persuasion does stand for something, and you can have an impact and change the world.
If you are apathetic and don’t get involved the world with change anyway without your input, but if you use your vote wisely, you can make sure that it goes in the direction that you want it do.
- I thought Stephen Beresford's script was as witty as it was heart-warming and heartbreaking, so what was the major draw for you when you read it for the first time?
The revelation of the story. I was brought up in Yorkshire and my family was very close to… my grandfather was a miner and my cousin was very close to the struggles of the mining community.
The assault on these communities by the closure of the pits was a really big part of my political education. To have a story that brought light to that era and showed two different groups of people coming together because of the same prejudice was just a story of success, solidarity and overcoming adversity and I think that those are brilliant messages to put out there.
Like you say, it has such a beautiful sense of humour to it as well as a very strong sense of character and I just could not wait to be in it. There was a conflict of dates as I was filming another TV project called From There To Here, and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do Pride. My agent and the casting director were just brilliant in making the dates work.
However, I didn’t find out that it was all going to happen until a week before we started filming. I was just so relieved because it was a project that I felt I just had to this - there was just one day that clashed, but I am so grateful that I got the chance to do it. It was brilliant and I am just so proud to be in Pride, I can’t tell you.
- When you are telling a true story - as with Our Zoo - there comes a level of responsibility, how did you find that pressure as an actor?
Yes you do. With Pride, because of the last minute filming decision, I didn’t get to meet Margaret, the character who I was playing but it wasn’t as important to my character. Because many of the people who were on the film had met the real people, they really did have a sense of who these people were.
On Our Zoo, I couldn’t meet Lizzie because she is no longer with us, but to meet her daughter and talk to her about her mum was great. If someone was playing my mum I would want them to get all of her qualities down, so it was great to talk to June about that and find out what a strong woman she was.
- Finally, what's next for you between now and the end of the year - is it all about Electra or have you got other things in the pipeline?
It is all about Electra - it is the 20th December when we finish this job. I have just started auditioning for things that would star in January, so we will see how that goes.
It is actually quite nice to be involved in such an exciting project and I only live about twenty minutes away from the theatre so it is going to be nice to be at home for a while and have a routine, which is something that you don’t often get as an actor.
I love the traveller’s existence part of my job as you living out of a suitcase most of the time and you don’t know where your next bed is. I find that really exciting but it is nice to be at home as well once in a while.