Tony Nominee Glenda Jackson on Awards, Jeremy Corbyn, Anti-Semitism, and Dancing With Fred Astaire
In a candid interview, Tony nominee Glenda Jackson talks to Tim Teeman about why she hates awards, Labour’s anti-Semitism row, Jeremy Corbyn’s election chances, and her mortality.
This reporter called Glenda Jackson on Tuesday morning to discuss her Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play, for her role as the majestically withering ‘A’ in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
Glenda Jackson, inevitably, had other ideas.
“I’m glad you rung. I’ve remembered where I was in rep,” she announced. “Hornchurch.”
Jackson and I had met last week to discuss the Tony Awards, her life in acting and her 23-year career in politics as a British Labour M.P., that party’s anti-Semitism controversy, the lack of good roles for women on stage, her own mortality, and much more, but she couldn’t remember the name of the town “at the end of the District Line” in London where she had performed repertory theatre many years ago.
“It came to me, like so much else does, at 3 o clock in the morning,” she said.
Soooo, this reporter said, you’ve been nominated for the Tony…
The famously straight-shooting, twice Oscar-winning Jackson said it was “the icing on the cake for doing a play with the caliber of actresses I work alongside with.” (Laurie Metcalf, last year's Best Actress Tony winner for A Doll's House, Part 2, is Tony-nominated this year in the featured actress category, Alison Pill is not.)
Told it was her fifth Tony nomination, Jackson said, “Is it really? My God. I didn’t know that. I always jib at the idea of winning. It sounds as if we overtly compete in some way. We don't, so the winners are those who vote for those who win the award in the end. I’m not competitive in that area. I am quite competitive with myself.”
Last week when we met, she sounded lukewarm on the idea of attending the Tonys. Would she?
“I think so, yes,” Jackson said as if I had asked about how much she was looking forward to an upcoming dental appointment. “I think you’re expected to, and you've got to eat.”
You don’t sound very keen on the idea, this reporter said.
“As I’ve had occasion to say before, I’m a pretty anti-sociable Socialist,” Jackson replied.
Jackson then asked a reporter which category she had been nominated in.
“Oh well, there you go,” she said in a fairly disinterested tone when told it was a Best Actress Tony. “I knew what the categories were. I wasn't aware of the definitions.”
Well, it’s a nice way to start the day at least?
“You can’t beat today. Just look outside at the sunshine,” Jackson replied.
There are many other plays and performances she would like to see this Broadway season, but her own eight performance a week schedule means she cannot, “so I’m not going to pine about it.”
The 81-year-old actress had yet to speak to her family (son Dan, his wife, and their 11-year-old son), back home in Blackheath, south east London, where she lives in the basement flat of the family home.
“Come on, no. What time is it there, 2 in afternoon? They’re at work, he’s at school. No, they won’t know anything about it until later in the day.”
When asked if she was going to celebrate, Jackson said brusquely, but with a gently guttural laugh: “I beg your pardon. I’ve got a performance tonight.”
Edward Albee couldn’t have scripted it better.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Jackson should win the Tony for her wonderful performance in Three Tall Women that mixes both venomous bluster and nuanced pathos. In a much-lauded and garlanded career, Jackson has won two Best Actress Oscars (for Women in Love, 1970, and A Touch of Class, 1973), and was most recently nominated for a Tony in 1988 for Hamlet.
From 1992 to 2015 she gave up acting to become a Labour M.P. Her return to the London stage came in 2016, playing King Lear.
Over coffee (her) and tea (me), the straight-talking, bluntly direct Jackson, her accent still tinged with the inflections of her native Birkenhead in the north west of England, had scoffed at the notion of a Tony Award nomination.
“You don't do a play to compete for an award. This was the argument I always had over the Oscars. I didn’t win them. They were given to me. All I did was 2 films. People always say the analogy is Olympic gold medals. Bullshit, it isn’t. With an Olympic medal, you all start at the same point, go the same distance, and the first person to cross the finish line wins. You work all your lives for that 30 seconds. It's not quite the same thing in my profession.”
Do awards mean anything to her?
“I wouldn't have thought so. Every performance you give is the first time you’ve done it. You've not played to that audience before. It is always, in that sense, a work in progress. The best teacher is an audience. The ideal performance is when that group of strangers sitting in the dark gets energy from the group in the light, and sends energy back to us. When it really works a perfect circle is formed.”
When Jackson won an Oscar for A Touch of Class, she had "no intention" of going to the ceremony, but she was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Hedda Gabler, so why not.
It was a smaller, more low-key event to the bloated glam-a-thon it is now.
“The big thing for me that night was that I met Fred Astaire. I couldn't believe it when I went to the party afterwards. He came up, I’m going…” She makes a fluttery sound of someone with nerves. Astaire approached her as the band was playing.
“He said, ‘I can’t do ballroom dancing.’ I said, ‘I can’t either.'”
Jackson, often so serious and occasionally furious, is smiling wistfully at the memory.
The idea of Glenda Jackson starstruck seems a surprise, I said.
“Oh, Fred Astaire! Come on! My fantasy is that I’m the best dancing partner he never had. I think I would have been marvelous with him, but there you go. You cannot do everything in this life, but you can try.”
Is she really that down on the Tonys?
“You don't do acting for that," she said, quickly, then smiled. "To be entirely honest, I didn't know there were so many awards in New York. Every day there seems to be an award for something.
“I’m trying to think about the last time I was nominated (1988, Hamlet). I had my photograph taken with Elizabeth Taylor. She and (Richard) Burton came to see it. She was actually very shy. And sweet. She knew how to connect. She was a human being first and foremost. The work she did for AIDS was just magnificent, the way she did it."
I asked which other stars she had met on her travels. "Rock Hudson. He was an absolute human being. Charming, funny, real. None of that ‘I’m a star’ shit, he was lovely.”
Jackson also loved meeting Bette Davis. “She was absolutely what I expected her to be. She didn’t disappoint in any way. She was marvelous, funny, bitchy. I mean there was no question who she was and you all knew it and so you should. The essential thing about stars is that they are human beings. All that external crap doesn’t really affect them.”
You are one as well, I said.
“I have never been a star,” Jackson said emphatically, as if she had never heard anything so stupid. “Nobody ever goes to see me for me.”
That's absurd, I said. Of course people are coming to see ‘Glenda Jackson.’
Jackson won’t hear of it. “People are usually very disappointed when they meet me, which I can understand because I’m very boring. I’m very dull. I absolutely lead an absolutely normal, ordinary, unremarkable life in every way. That's the way I like to live. They come to see me do what I do, and that's a different kettle of fish. Nobody comes to see me to be me. I haven’t got anything to sell. Good God, what have I got? Nowt.”
A few hours before Jackson and I met, a friend had wished me good luck, a note of doom in his voice. Jackson had just reduced the LA Times theatre critic Charles McNulty to such a desperate-sounding mess that his (excellent) interview had been headlined, “My Disastrous Tea With Glenda Jackson.”
My contrasting experience: Glenda Jackson isn’t vicious or mean. She challenges you if she doesn’t agree with how a question is phrased, but she is not personally scornful. She uses “bloody” a fair bit. She’s direct. She occasionally gesticulates or thumps the table to underscore a point. There’s no wishy-washiness to her opinions. You want vinegar? She’s got sachets of it to spare.
She’s also very candid – about why she feels the Labour Party doesn’t have a specific anti-Semitism problem, but should deal with whatever issues it does have head-on, the unlikelihood as she sees it of a Jeremy Corbyn prime-ministership, the disaster of Brexit, growing up in Birkenhead (like this author’s mother), and acting in the nude for director Ken Russell while champagne bottles and metal suitcases rained down on her.
It’s not the first time Jackson and I have met; when she was MP for Hampstead and Highgate, I had interviewed her at a market in her constituency. The traders had all given her a hard time. But she’d given as good as she got.
She’s like that: bluff, tough, but – newsflash – she does smile and laugh. She thrives on sparring. She recalls meeting voters in her constituency who would say either, “I like your acting but don't like your politics,” or, “I like your politics, but don't like your acting.” She's entirely used to dividing opinion. She expects to.
Jackson stoutly defends the presence of celebrities in politics. “They have the right to vote. Why should they not be allowed to speak out about things? Anything I could have done to have gotten Margaret Thatcher and her government out and was legal, I was prepared to do.”
Jackson decided to become an M.P. having been enraged by Thatcher’s infamous quote that “There is no such thing as society,” that “I almost walked into a closed set of French windows.”
Jackson's speech in Parliament after Thatcher's death in 2013 remains one of her most memorable.
Jackson's guiding principle in politics and on the stage is, as E.M. Forster had it, “Only connect.”
The other day a woman outside a Duane Reade in her neighborhood had approached Jackson, and told her she had come to see Three Tall Women, and been incredibly moved by it. “And her eyes filled with tears, and you think, ‘Bugger me, that’s pretty amazing.’”
Jackson is less misty-eyed when it comes to the lack of scope in theatre for female actors and playwrights.
“I do wonder why contemporary dramatists find female characters so uninteresting, why we are never or rarely ever the driving force of anything. It's a fantasy to say there’s been a change. Whenever I say this, somebody says to disprove my point, ‘So and so is writing this.’ That's not the point. The point is I don’t know why creative, contemporary dramatists don't find us interesting. That has never changed in all the years I’ve been working. Never.”
Three Tall Women has been a blast, Jackson said, because she got to work with two other actresses; she was equally fortunate performing The House of Bernarda Alba and The Maids.
“If it’s a woman’s part, it’s usually only one,” Jackson said. “I don't know why they don't find us interesting, but they don't. They definitely don't. I think it’s much harder for female playwrights. They’re expected to have a political flag to fly, which I think is unfair. If they’re in the field of comedy, they don’t have to do it up to a point… It ain’t equal by any means.”
When asked how it was living temporarily in Trump’s America, Jackson said New York was its own liberal cocoon, and that what Trump symbolized was “part and parcel of what’s going on around the world. It’s an insidious, pretty disturbing shift to the right. Look at what’s happening in the UK. Why are we leaving Europe for God’s sake? Have we all gone crazy?”
The only benefit Jackson said she had taken from acting to politics was that she wasn’t afraid of public speaking, except when she stood up to make her maiden speech in Parliament she found it very frightening, because she suddenly realized she was speaking for her constituents, “and a number of talented geniuses had lived in that constituency, like Keats."
Some of her MP colleagues had such colossal, puffed-up egos they would not have been “tolerated in professional theatre for 30 seconds,” she said – although showbusiness is hardly known for its fading flowers.
Jackson doesn’t miss Parliament, though she misses her constituents, containing “every aspect of socioeconomic groupings. The image of Hampstead as exclusively occupied by millionaires who did nothing but chatter and sip champagne couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The current political turmoil in the U.S. and U.K. has not disheartened her. Most members of political parties, she said, were motivated by a belief in public service, in doing something good and productive. There were "no silver bullets," she said, and while every step forward was incremental, “steps back can look like a ski slope.”
Immigration was the key issue of the Brexit vote, Jackson said, “and no political parties pulled that nettle out of the undergrowth and said, ‘OK, we’ve got to look at this.’”
If Brexit goes ahead, “the big victory” would be to keep London in its primary position as Europe's leading financial capital, Jackson said; the rights of workers, the maintenance of foreign treaties would also have to be maintained.
About Tory P.M. Theresa May, Jackson said: “I have a lot of admiration for her. It’s such a time to be as solitary as she is. You know she doesn't get support except from a small group of people. You look at her colleagues and think, ‘She’s the only bloody grown up in the room.’”
As for May's colleagues and potential usurpers, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jackson adopts a pained expression. “Please don't mention their names to me. Oh come on, God almighty, talk about slipping backwards down an icy slope. This is the 21st century.”
The EU had adopted a tough negotiating tack with Britain, Jackson said. She finds it hard to believe there will be a second referendum on Brexit. “I can’t see a future for Britain outside Europe is going to be easy. Negotiations aren’t going our way, that’s pretty clear.”
But, she said smiling, she had said to an American friend not to worry about Trump being elected president, and she had gone to bed on the night of the Brexit vote with ‘Remain’ (in Europe) still leading the polls. “So, that’s how much I know.” The next morning she said to her daughter-in-law that she was emigrating to Scotland.
As for the anti-Semitism row currently roiling Labour, Jackson said, “Jeremy Corbyn is not a racist, and I don’t believe he is anti-Semitic. What he is is pro-Palestinian. That presumably is where the conflict comes from, and whatever has been misread and misinterpreted.”
Jackson said she too had experienced “serious criticism” from Jewish organizations because of her own criticism of the Israeli government.
However, she recognizes the present rise of anti-Semitism: she recalled Jewish constituents in 2015 saying they were thinking of leaving Britain. “I don't know where it’s come from, but no one seems able to handle it. Do we never learn? Dear God, it’s scandalous.”
Jackson said she had never met an anti-Semitic Labour Party member, but that the leadership should look into the issue and take appropriate action.
“Our electoral chances were pretty slim even without this. It certainly doesn't help.”
Jackson doesn’t know who the party base is now – “That absolutely working class vote. Where is the working class vote now?” So, Corbyn isn’t an election-winning leader for her? “No, we’re not going to win, but then are they? (Theresa May’s Conservative party) We’re on course for some kind of combined government.”
If Parliament votes against the final deal the U.K. emerges from in its Brexit negotiations, Jackson predicts May will step down.
“I can’t see the Labour Party in a position to form a government. I don’t like saying it, but there it is.”
She doesn’t know who should lead the party, and “what party is Jeremy leading – it’s not a party I know. Look, who’s running it now? Momentum isn’t it? I wasn’t a member of Momentum.”
Corbyn and Jackson had neighboring constituencies, and she could go to him “day and night at any hour” with any issues. He was “amazingly helpful, and spoke to and smiled at everybody. You always knew his position when he was on the backbenches, pounding away on whatever the human rights issue was on that day.”
When Jackson left Parliament, she sent Corbyn a letter saying that she regretted that she couldn’t nominate him for the leadership.
“I would never have voted for him as a leader, but always thought there should be someone from the left on the ballot paper. I never thought in a million years he would win.”
The party, said Jackson, is “fighting ourselves, not fighting for the country. This is what I find so bemusing and depressing. We’re fighting each other and not them (the Conservatives). There’s a silent majority in the Labour Party who aren’t opening their mouths and you wonder why that should be.”
They should open their mouths, Jackson said, "by condemning anti-Semitism, and anti-anything when it comes to human rights but particularly that for God’s sake, and categorically saying if that can be proven to be part of the Labour Party’s policy consideration that it has to go. I don’t believe it is part of Labour policy in any shape or form. But somebody has to stand up and say, ‘This is not acceptable and we’re not going to accept it.’”
Would she ever leave Labour? "God, no. I’d never be a member of another party and I would never ever vote for any candidate other than Labour.”
A friend told Jackson that when she returned to acting after 23 years away, it would be like riding a bike. “I said it was rather more complicated than that. What I love is the camaraderie of theatre: everything is focused on getting the play as best as it can be done.”
Albee is tricky as he used simple words, but differently in different sentences.
“Acting is not a game,” Jackson said sternly. We are not playing at playing.”
Acting was not a cherished dream growing up – “Good God, no. Not at all. Ever.”
Glenda was the oldest of four daughters. She recalled her father, a builder, knocking on the front door of a friend if she was one minute past her 10pm curfew. She had to take her younger siblings wherever she went, and later accused her mother of giving her “an over-developed sense of responsibility” too soon.
She could never do anything by herself, and those were the days where a close-knit neighborhood meant that if you tried to play truant from school or were somewhere you shouldn’t be, it would be reported, pronto, straight to your parents.
“Certainly, it came to me, later, that there was more to life than I was experiencing and I had more to offer than was being asked of me.”
A friend she worked alongside in Boots (a British pharmacy chain) was an amateur actor and encouraged Jackson to join the group she attended. There, someone encouraged Jackson to pursue acting professionally (that person's daughter later wrote to Jackson to say how proud her mother would have been to see Jackson’s ascent through the profession).
Then-Cheshire County Council funded Jackson through prestigious drama school RADA, though her parents were not happy. “My mother thought she’d never see me again, that I’d be sold to white slavers. My father was more sanguine. They came to see me when I was doing rep in Crewe. My character disappeared with a male character into a garden and didn’t re-emerge well into the second act. My dad was saying to my mum all that time, ‘What are they doing in that bloody garden?’”
Her parents were sanguine about her success. “When I used to go home I was fine if I didn't have holes in my shoes.”
Theatre was “difficult, and so it was interesting,” she said of acting on stage.
Does she mean pretending to be somebody else?
“That's not what it is. You have to get off that,” snapped Jackson. She meant achieving that connection between audience and actors. She was once-performing in an anti-Vietnam War play in London, which ended with a butterfly being symbolically set alight.
One night, a woman from the audience came on to the stage and stopped the action. The play had affected her so much she wanted to make clear that people could do something to protest the conflict.
Of course, there have been times when the plays have far from connected, such as the time when – Jackson recalled laughing – a woman said from the stalls during one performance, “Well, that’s not very good acting, with your back to the audience.”
Acting in Ken Russell’s films bought Jackson fame (and her first Oscar for Women in Love). “To work with him, my God what a privilege,” she said. “It’s absolutely disgraceful the way the British film industry virtually ignored him. He broke the envelope for British film. Up to them it had been excessively parochial. He just tore it apart. He had a third eye, he saw underneath things.”
The explicit sex and sexuality in Russell's films didn’t bother Jackson.
“You always had people on set on those days who weren’t usually there,” she said, laughing. While filming The Music Lovers (1970), Jackson recalled, she had to lie down naked on the ground, on what was supposed to be the floor of a train carriage that male stagehands were rocking side to side. An ice bucket and champagne bottle fell on top of her, and smashed.
“Wipe her off, wipe her off, she’s not bleeding, she’s alright,” cried Russell.
Metal suitcases fell on her next.
“Come on, come on. If she’s bruised, it’s not going to show,” cried Russell.
Eventually, a male cameraman was placed in her lap to get the desired shots. “I'm a married man,” he reassured her.
Jackson said she has not been a victim of sexual abuse or harassment. “But nobody ever hired me for the way I looked. But did you know that 2 women die every week in the UK at the hands of a male? I don’t find that on the front page of every newspaper.”
Regarding the Harvey Weinstein scandal and other #MeToo flashpoints, Jackson said, “People didn't know about the sexual harassment that was going on: that's ridiculous. But what is utterly ridiculous is pretending that this isn’t happening in a private house up the road.”
The rumors were “constant” about offenders in her profession. “But the idea this only affects certain people in certain professions for certain reasons is crap. It’s been going on since they (Adam and Eve) walked out of the Garden of Eden, and it’s going on now.”
Mortality are central to both the characters of King Lear and 'A' in Three Tall Women.
Does Jackson share the preoccupation? “Sometimes I do. I think have accepted it’s going to happen. But you just have to make sure that when you go you've ‘left it tidy,’ if you known what I mean, so whoever is left doesn’t get sucked into that terrible ‘Should we do this, should we do that?’ thing.”
Both her parents died suddenly (her father had been ill), with no family with them when they died. “It’s the thing you dread – that the call comes in at that moment you aren’t at the hospital,” Jackson said. The only thing my mother said was ‘I don't want to end up in a pauper’s grave.’ As if we’d have left her in a bloody pauper’s grave.”
Jackson's general health is "good, touch wood" (which she does). I noticed Jackson’s arm had bruises on it. She suffers from eczema, she said, sometimes scratching her ear until it bleeds, and the ointment she uses makes her skin sensitive. So, even if she lightly bumps into a doorknob, it can bloom into a nasty-looking bruise.
She lives in the basement apartment of her son Dan Hodges – a newspaper columnist – and his wife’s home.
“He had an absolutely normal upbringing,” Jackson said of Dan. “He never went near a theatre or film studio. He was never used for publicity photographs. He lived an absolutely normal childhood. He came home from school one day and said to me, ‘Are you famous?’ I said, ‘You could say that.’ He said, ‘What are you famous for?’”
Jackson shielded Dan from her fame, because she didn’t want it to be “destructive” for him. “If I worked in a factory, would I have taken him to it?” She laughed. “Well, I might have done actually.”
She and Dan’s family don't live in each other’s pockets, but she’s close enough "for grandma duties" when required.
“I think I’m quite authoritarian and strict,” Jackson said of her relationship to her 11-year-old grandson, “but he ignores everything I say. It’s water off a duck’s back to him.”
He has seen her in Lear and Three Tall Women, although she insisted he leave the theatre for the part in the former where Gloucester’s eye is gouged out.
“His heroes are the Marvel heroes,” said Jackson, then added with dry archness: “I’m not into superheroes I have my doubts about them.”
Jackson only married once (to Dan's father, Roy Hodges until their divorce in 1976), and is happy living independently. “It’s just the way life panned out. I think I am too set in my ways. My concern when that marriage broke up was Dan, but I was very fortunate his father shared the exact same point of view I did and shared raising him.”
Jackson will work as long as people approach her with projects she is interested in. She was raised, she said, “that if you didn’t work you didn’t eat. That’s a hard lesson to forget. I’ve been blessed with a strong work ethic.”
The notion of dying while at work, on stage, seems “pretentious,” she said, laughing, reminding her of a story of Laurence Olivier once telling fellow actor Sybil Thorndike that he thought he was going to die during a performance. “One way to see it is that it’s a wonderful way to go,” said Jackson. “The other is: how unprofessional." She laughed. "I prefer to go with the latter, I bloody do.”
I ask Jackson what she will do after Three Tall Women. “God knows, I haven’t done this yet,” she volleyed back. She has been heartened by younger audiences coming to it, and a young woman saying how much she liked Albee's plays.
“My worse day is my day off. I feel so bloody tired,” Jackson said. She leaves her character at work. “You shouldn’t have anything to take home after a performance. It should have all happened on stage. If you’re taking stuff home, you ain’t done your job. During rehearsals you and your character are like Siamese twins, never apart from each other. That goes on for quite some time. But once you’re up and doing it there should be nothing to take home.”
Jackson’s reputation for fierceness, she thinks, is because of the parts she has played and the way she has played them. She repeats to me what she has said before: two things bemuse her – that people find her frightening, and that they are surprised to find she speaks in complete sentences.
“The second one I think is more amazing than the first because don't we all speak in complete sentences? I mean, what does that mean?”
Enjoy the rest of your run, I said giving her a gentle hug as she prepared to leave. As soon as I said it, I knew she'd leap on such a pat sentiment. And indeed...“You’ve got it wrong. This is not a holiday,” Jackson said sharply.
This reporter looked at her expecting that fearsome scowl, but Glenda Jackson was smiling merrily.