Maggie Smith On The Pressures Of Acting: &#039You Want So Significantly To Get It Correct&#039



Known for her recent work in Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films, the Oscar-winning actress now stars in The Lady in the Van, a film about an elderly woman who lived in a van for 15 years.



This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. Our guest today is British actress Maggie Smith, who’s been working for half a century and has appeared in more than 50 films. She’s among only a handful of performers to win best actress and best supporting actress at the Academy Awards. Those honors, for “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite,” date back to 1970 and ’79. But Maggie Smith has become better known to American audiences in recent years for playing Professor McGonagall in the “Harry Potter” films and for her scene-stealing performances as the dowager countess in the Masterpiece series “Downton Abbey,” which wraps up its final season March 6. Smith stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van,” which is based on the true story of a homeless woman who lived in an immobile van parked for 15 years in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett. In this scene, Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, has just told Miss Shepherd, played by Maggie Smith, he’s decided to let her park in his driveway.


MAGGIE SMITH: (As Miss Shepherd) Park the van in your drive? That never occurred to me. I don’t know. I don’t know, it might not be convenient.

ALEX JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) No, I’ve thought it over. Believe me, Miss Shepherd, it’s all right just until you sort yourself out.

SMITH: (As Miss Shepherd) Not convenient for you? Convenient for me – you’re not doing me a favor, you know. I have got other fish to fry. A man on the pavement told me if I went south of the river, I’d be welcomed with open arms.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) I was about to do her a good turn, but as ever, it was not without thoughts of strangulation.

DAVIES: Well, Maggie Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s great to have you.

SMITH: Thank you.

DAVIES: Let’s talk about performing the role of Mary Shepherd, the lady in the van. Alan Bennett, who let her live in his driveway for 15 years – and the van became crowded with bags underneath…

SMITH: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIES: And she never saw him – and this is very clear in your performance – she never saw him as doing her a kindness at all.


DAVIES: How is that?

SMITH: No, she didn’t.


SMITH: I think she would never have thanked anybody. I don’t know if it was because that’s how far she got in her existence that she was completely single-minded. I don’t think she thought or cared about anybody. She was so – I would imagine – so desperate to just exist. And then she must’ve existed in this completely separate world. Her main interest seemed to be God. I don’t think she thought about other people very much.

DAVIES: Did you spend a lot of time in the van itself?

SMITH: It seemed to me as though I spent quite a lot of time not necessarily in it but certainly getting in and out of it, which I found quite difficult. I have no idea how she managed. I really haven’t because it was physically quite difficult to get in and out.

DAVIES: Maybe you could describe what the inside of the van was like.

SMITH: Well, the inside of my van was – it was just full of all kinds of things. And there was a wonderful girl called Katie who was on the set, and she was sort of always finding odd things to put in it. But it was indescribably nasty. And there were onions and potatoes and old tins of things in cardboard boxes and masses of writing material that she had. She also had a little television which worked for a while because Alan Bennett provided her with the electricity to do so. So she had this long wire running from his house to her van.

DAVIES: You know, this brings us in touch with the dissonance between how we look to others and what’s going on inside our heads. I mean, when people would look at Mary Shepherd and your character, they see, you know, a woman who they might regard as sort of crazy, unhinged, and don’t give it a second thought. But she obviously had a history and internal life. Could you talk a bit about kind of how you got in her head? What was going on?

SMITH: When I spoke to Nick Hytner the director – when I first spoke to him, he was talking about how she played piano. And he played this beautiful, very sad Chopin. And it kind of gave me a way in because I hadn’t really thought about that so much because it seemed in the past in her existence, you know? But then to realize that she had studied the piano, and to that extent that she had – you know, Cortot was her teacher. He was one of the most brilliant pianists and most brilliant players of Chopin. And it made me feel – actually, it made me feel incredibly sad about her to think that there was that amount of talent and this great gift that she had, and that it had all gone to waste. And I often wondered if she thought about that when she was, you know, in isolation in this van.

DAVIES: Yeah, she had been a talented musician as a young woman, right?

SMITH: Yeah, and seriously so – you know, a concert pianist type.

DAVIES: Did you shoot the film in the same neighborhood?

SMITH: Exactly the same neighborhood. And it was outside – it was Allen’s house, which he actually still owns. He doesn’t live in it, but it’s still there. So we were in exactly the same position, and there were, indeed, people up and down Gloucester Crescent – which is where it is Camden Town in North London – there were people there who remembered her and, I think, probably got very nervous when they saw this little van arriving.

DAVIES: (Laughter) I’m sure they did.

SMITH: Because there were people there who’d gone through the whole saga.

DAVIES: You know, I don’t know if you’re the kind of actor who takes a role home at the end of the day. But I’m wondering what being in those clothes day after day and playing that kind of a character – if you felt it changed you in any way.

SMITH: It made it feel impossible, quite honestly, because filming – you film come rain, come shine, come whatever. And it did rain a lot. And of course, that’s what she must have gone through. Of course it rained; of course it was cold. I just – I’m speechless about her tenacity and the way she managed to get through it. But, you know, it really was quite hard to be out there in the rain. Then she ended up with, you know, sticks and things, and then a wheelchair. It’s mystifying. She must have had such determination. I mean, to get through the shoot was hard enough. But you’re talking about getting through years and years and years – incredible.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Maggie Smith. She stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.”

Well, we must talk about “Downton Abbey,” which has just been so enormously popular in the United States and Britain. How did this role of the dowager countess come to you?

SMITH: Well, I would suspect from – because I’d done “Gosford Park,” a film that Julian had written that Robert Altman directed.

DAVIES: Julian Fellowes, yeah, who created “Downton Abbey.”

SMITH: Yes, Julian Fellowes. And I can’t remember when that was. I’m hopeless – all I know is that time is going past so fast. It must have been some time…

DAVIES: 2001.

SMITH: Well there you go. That is some time ago.

DAVIES: Longer than I would have thought also.

SMITH: But I remember meeting up with him and him saying he’d written this part, and he hoped that I would do it. And yes, I certainly did do it.

DAVIES: Well let’s listen to a clip. This is one fairly early in the series where you are speaking with Lady Grantham, who is played by Elizabeth McGovern. And just as background, there’s brief mention of an incident which had happened at Downton Abbey, which was that a young Turkish diplomat had actually died in a bedroom there. That’s mentioned in what we’re about to hear. But in this scene, you as the dowager countess are speaking with Lady Grantham about finding a suitable husband for Lady Mary, the eldest Crawley daughter. Let’s listen.


SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) How about some house parties?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) She’s been asked to one next month by Lady Anne MacClare.

SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) That’s a terrible idea. She doesn’t know anyone under 100.

MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.

SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Oh, I don’t think things are quite that desperate. Poor Mary. She’s been terribly down-in-the-mouth lately.

MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.

SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Why? She didn’t know him. One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.

DAVIES: That is our guest, Maggie Smith, with Elizabeth McGovern from a moment of “Downton Abbey.” I mean, you know, this is a wonderful ensemble cast. But everyone remembers you and those terrific lines you have. Did you realize what a great comedic role this was when you first got it?

SMITH: Yes, yes I did. I thought it was great fun because she was so – well, obviously the oldest in the group. And it was wonderful because she would just sort – she was in the position where she could say what she wanted to say because she was the elder and they deferred to her. And that was – it was fun. I’m so glad you said that about the ensemble because we got three awards for ensemble work, which is really good – three SAG awards, which is terrific, for the whole company.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Maggie Smith. She stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with actress Maggie Smith. When we left off, we were talking about the Masterpiece series “Downton Abbey” in which she plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham. We interview Julian Fellowes a while back, and he said that he based your character on an aunt of his, I believe.


DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. And he said, what was terrific about Maggie Smith was that she was able to combine the contradictions in the role, someone who could at time be so cutting and then be so kind and sort of integrated them. And he said that only an actress of your talent and stature could pull it off.

SMITH: Oh, that’s very nice.

DAVIES: Did – any particular inspiration for you finding this character?

SMITH: No. It was – mainly the way it was written by Julian, which was terrific, you know, and the wonderful lines to say. And it was written so elegantly. She was always very in sympathy with the girls, I think, the very young. She was very helpful to all of them. And I think she knew that they felt restricted.

DAVIES: Right. She understood the constraints of those roles…


DAVIES: …Better than anyone…

SMITH: Yes, I think…

DAVIES: …Right, right.

SMITH: Yes, completely because she’d been through it even stricter. But I think she was very aware of it.

DAVIES: You know, Julian Fellowes writes about this life partly with some personal knowledge. I mean, he actually holds a title, which I don’t remember. But…

SMITH: Oh, he’s frightfully grand. He’s a lord.

DAVIES: Right. And so he had a connection…

SMITH: We do a lot of curtsying.

DAVIES: He had a personal connection to that world. What was your sense of the English aristocracy?

SMITH: Oh, goodness, it’s so way beyond me. I’m far, far, far from that. But of course, that’s one of the joys of acting is that you can move up in the world, even if – you know, in the characters that you’re playing, even if you don’t. So it was – it’s always very nice to be somebody rather grand. Now I seem to be stuck with it, which is a bit of a strain.

DAVIES: Stuck with the role, you mean.

SMITH: I think I’m just – well, with old, old mad women, if you know what I mean. They seem to be well, the one thing I can do now. You know, it’s funny to be pigeonholed so late in life but there we are.

DAVIES: You can go on YouTube and find montages of your lines in “Downton,” one after the other after the other after the other. Do you have a favorite one yourself?

SMITH: I don’t remember any of them, to speak truth.

DAVIES: The one that people…

SMITH: Honestly, there were so many, I don’t remember.

DAVIES: The line people most mentioned to me is when Matthew Crawley is talking about how he would manage his time, and he said there’s always the weekend.


DAVIES: And you say…


DAVIES: (Laughter).

SMITH: What is a weekend? Yes, but truthfully – I mean, it’s funny but I – it’s weird that it sticks in people’s memories so much, isn’t it? I mean, what is so funny about saying what is a weekend?

DAVIES: Well, it’s the fact that this woman has grown to her age and hasn’t distinguishing the weekend days from any other. And…

SMITH: No, they’ve all been lazy, idle times. But even so it seems odd, doesn’t it?

DAVIES: It’s the way she says it, I think.

SMITH: Yeah, maybe it’s the way you say it. The thing I remember a lot is the swivel chair.

DAVIES: Right.

SMITH: I remember like – I like that bit in the chair.

DAVIES: Your character sits in a swivel chair. And (laughter)…

SMITH: Yes, and she’s very surprised and indignant that it moves. She hasn’t come across those.

DAVIES: Yeah, electric lights – has no use for electric lights, yeah.

SMITH: No, that was a terrible shock to her when they had electric light in the house. It must’ve been to many people actually if you think about it. And they’re all in that sort of – the gloom of oil lamps and candles and things.

DAVIES: Sure. The other thing we must mention is your foil in so many of the episodes, Isobel Crawley, played by…


DAVIES: …Penelope Wilton.

SMITH: …My lovely friend Penelope Wilton.


SMITH: Isn’t she terrific?

DAVIES: You’re both terrific in it.

SMITH: She’s stunning.

DAVIES: You want to tell us anything about how you do those scenes, the two of you?

SMITH: Well, we do it with a great deal of laughter. We used to laugh a lot. It was quite funny, one day we were doing a scene. And I had to stick all the time in the series, which is just as well because I needed to have a new hip by the end of it. But it was quite funny because as I got up in this scene to say something to Penelope. And I had my stick, and I was sort of doing that awful teetering and crouching about. And I said to Penelope why – why am I acting old? I’ve got there. It’s the one thing I don’t need to act. And we got quite hysterical. I thought why indeed am I doing that awful acting when you got a stick and you do sort of crouch over? And I said I don’t need to do this…

DAVIES: (Laughter).

SMITH: Sort of what you do in drama school when asked to play something way out of your reach. Anyway, we used to laugh a lot about that. I used to say I’m not going to act old, Penelope. I’ll just be myself (laughter).

DAVIES: (Laughter) That’s great. We’re speaking with Maggie Smith. She stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” You didn’t grow up in a theatrical family. Your dad was a pathologist I believe, right? Tell us a bit about…

SMITH: Yeah, he worked in a pathology lab.

DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us a bit about how you grew up, what you were like as a kid.

SMITH: Well, I – no, there was nobody in the family who had ever done anything like that before. My brothers – I had two brothers. They were twins. They both became architects. They were both six years older. But they could do these fantastic drawings and – so that was a mystery I think to my parents, too because they had no idea that that was around in the family anywhere. Maybe it never was. But – so they broke the way for me, if you know what I mean. I have no idea where I got the idea from to do what I do. But I think they – Ian and Alistair, my brothers kind of opened a lot of doors for me onto the world – you know, made it seem to be a very, very interesting place.

DAVIES: Were you an entertaining kid to your friends? Did you make them laugh?

SMITH: I don’t remember doing that particularly. I went to a school where they were – well, no, they did plays and things. I was never in those, really. But I had a very good English teacher who said to me that she thought I ought to do it. She – I don’t know, she saw something thank goodness because I think if it hadn’t been encouraged by somebody that serious, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me.

DAVIES: And you went to an acting school in Oxford, right? And got in…

SMITH: They started one, yes. It didn’t last very long. If you applied to get in you got in, if you know what I mean. I was there for about a term I think. Then I went to the – it was a playhouse that did repertory theater in Oxford. And I worked there for quite a long time actually on stage management understudying and being a dog’s body really.

DAVIES: And you got into reviews where you did – what? – singing and a lot of…

SMITH: Yes, I did…

DAVIES: A lot of comedy, right? Yeah.

SMITH: Because it was – the drama school was in Oxford – and it’s funny to think of it, but in those days when I started out the University was nearly all male. And they certainly weren’t mixed. There were male colleges, and there were very few female colleges. So they were always looking for women to be in productions. We did quite a lot of – well, they were amateur reviews. And we did them up in Edinburgh, right at the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe – you know, the big festival that goes on in Edinburgh every year.

DAVIES: And you were good enough to get picked for a review that went to Broadway in 1956.

SMITH: Yes, it was a review they called “New Faces.” There was one very famous one, which was the one with Eartha Kitt. And I think everybody who was in it thought they were all going to be Eartha Kitt or be big stars. That didn’t happen, but it was a wake-up call to have one’s first professional job on Broadway, I must say.

DAVIES: Maggie Smith stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” After a break, we’ll talk about her Oscar-winning performances. And she’ll explain why she still feels insecure as an actress. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who’s off this week. We’re speaking with actress Maggie Smith who stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” She’s appeared in more than 50 films and is best known to American audiences for her roles in the “Harry Potter” films and her performance as the Dowager Countess in the Masterpiece series “Downton Abbey.” Maggie Smith won an Oscar for best supporting actress for “California Suite” and the best actress award for “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.” Let’s talk a bit about “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.” In 1969, you played a teacher in a girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland who’s a bit more modern in her views and lifestyle than the school itself, which is quite conservative, but very popular among her students. This is a scene where the head mistress, Ms. Mackay, who is played by Celia Johnson, has summoned you, as Ms. Brodie, to her office because she’s concerned about Ms. Brodie’s influence on her students. Let’s listen.


CELIA JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay) Please sit down.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) Oh, thank you.

JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay) What a colorful frock.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) Color, it enlivens the spirit, does it not?

JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay) Perhaps you’re right, though I sometimes wonder if the spirits of the girls need enlivening.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) Oh, indeed they do. My credo is lift, enliven, stimulate.

JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay) No doubt, but the Marcia Blaine School is essentially a conservative school. We do not encourage the progressive attitudes. Now, Ms. Brodie, I have noticed a spirit of precocity among your girls, your special girls.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) Well, thank you.

JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay): Oh.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) I am in my prime, and my girls are benefiting from it. I’m proud to think that perhaps my girls are more aware.

JOHNSON: (As Ms. Mackay) Precisely.

SMITH: (As Jean Brodie) To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ex meaning out and ducere, I lead. To me, education is simply a leading out of what is already there.

DAVIES: And that is our guest Maggie Smith in her performance that won her the Best Actress Oscar, “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969. This is about a charismatic teacher. You know, I actually taught in a girls’ school in my 20s and I knew teachers like this who just…

SMITH: Did you (laughter)?

DAVIES: Just, you know, were magnetic personalities but could be controversial. Did you draw on anybody for this performance? This is just a terrific role, isn’t it?

SMITH: No, I don’t think I did. I don’t think – I didn’t have a teacher like that. But again, it’s so fantastically written. I’m so moved to hear Celia Johnson again, so lovely.

DAVIES: Yeah, she’s great.

SMITH: Goodness, she was such a terrific actress, lovely lady. She’s so vividly written. The odd thing is – and this is quite interesting – is that it was directed by Ronald Neame whose grandson is the producer of “Downton Abbey.”

DAVIES: Oh, really?

SMITH: So there you go.


SMITH: That’s a connection.

DAVIES: Tradition, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: And that’s Gareth Neame who was also at school with my sons. So there’s sort of six degrees of separation, I suppose.

DAVIES: You know, I believe you were not at the Oscars ceremony where it was presented. Did you have…

SMITH: No, I was opening in a play at The National Theatre. It was the first night and Sir Laurence wouldn’t let me go.

DAVIES: Laurence Olivier? Yeah.

SMITH: Yeah.


SMITH: Well, quite rightly. I mean, you can’t just abandon a whole production. We were doing Congreve, “The Beaux’ Stratagem.”

DAVIES: Were you shocked that you got the nomination and the Oscar? I mean…

SMITH: I was – you know, back then, it hadn’t entered my mind things like Oscars. And they weren’t anywhere near so huge things as they are now. I mean, now they’ve become, I mean, just extraordinary, aren’t they all this sort if all over the place? But it was thrilling. But, of course, I missed out on it all.

DAVIES: Well, it happened again a few years later for “California Suite,” which was the 1978 film written by Neil Simon where you won the best supporting actress. This is a film about several different stories, all of them couples, I believe, at a California hotel, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

DAVIES: Your character is an actress who is in California, ironically, for the Academy Awards.

SMITH: How funny. I hadn’t thought of it for a long time.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. And your husband is Michael Caine who – it’s a marriage of convenience, I gather. He’s actually gay.


DAVIES: He’s gay. And I want to play this little scene where you’ve just come back from the awards ceremony where your character, the actress, did not win and did not take it so well. And she’s having an argument with Michael Caine in their suite. Let’s listen.


SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) What was the best picture?

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) The best picture? You were there when they announced it. It came after the best actress.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) I was in a deep depression at the time. What was the best bloody picture?

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) You mean what was the best picture of the year or what did those idiots pick as the best picture of the year?

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) What won the award you [expletive]?

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) I’m not an [expletive]. Don’t you call me that.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Sidney, I have just thrown up on some of the best people in Hollywood. Now is no time to be sensitive. What was the best picture?

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) I’m not telling you.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) I’m not asking you. I’m threatening you, you crud.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Now I’m definitely not going to tell you.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) I’m sorry, I take it back, Sidney. You’re not a crud.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Am I still an [expletive]?

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Definitely.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Then I’m never going to tell you. You behaved abominably tonight.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Did not.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Abominably.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Did not.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Abom…

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) [Expletive] crud.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) I am going to bed. We have a 10 a.m. plane to catch in the morning.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Ten a.m. is the morning. That is redundant, you A-H.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) Well, do you think I don’t know what you’re saying? I can spell, you know.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Not without moving your lips you can’t. I would like another drink, please.

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) You drank everything in this state, try Nevada.

DAVIES: That is fun. That’s our guest…

SMITH: I haven’t heard that for years.

DAVIES: Do you like it listening back?

SMITH: Yes, it’s fun hearing Michael.

DAVIES: Yeah, that is Michael Caine with our guest…


DAVIES: Maggie Smith in the film “California Suite.” Tell us a little bit about what Michael Caine did that was so special in that role for you.

SMITH: He was very supportive because it was a tricky time. Herby Ross wasn’t the easiest of people.

DAVIES: He was the director.

SMITH: The director. And Michael always stood up for me. That means everything on a movie, you know, when you’re working with somebody, particularly, when they support you and help you through the difficult times. And there were some difficult times. Not everybody’s idea of comedy is the same, you know?

DAVIES: Right. I mean, it was written that Herbert Ross – there were some tensions on the set. I mean, can you think of an example of the way that he was asking for something?

SMITH: Yes, I can, but I’d rather not say.

DAVIES: Keep it in the business?

SMITH: ‘Cause it was really so hurtful what he said that I just would rather not – and because Michael was there, it was all fine.

DAVIES: And did he intervene at that moment and say…

SMITH: He just helped me a lot, and so did Neil. Neil Simon backed me up a lot too, so it was fine.

DAVIES: Maggie Smith stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with British actress Maggie Smith. She stars in the new film “The Lady In The Van.” Michael Coveney, who’s written a biography of you, he wrote you behave at all times as if you have no power or status whatsoever. And, you know, when I think about the remarkable talent that you seem to display in every performance, you know, there are stories that on the set you can be intimidating – maybe even difficult at times, which seems at odds with someone who – what one might think is at odds with someone who really doesn’t think of herself as having power and status. And I’m wondering if you think that’s true – that you are – yeah.

SMITH: Yes, I think it is true. But I think it’s because – I’ve thought about this a lot. I think it’s because – I know it sounds silly but I am – and I think a lot of actors would agree with this – I am very insecure. And I don’t know, I feel somehow – on a set, I feel a bit trapped because you’re in a corner, and you absolutely have to do it. There is no way out. In the theater, you know, you get another chance. You can do it the next night, the next performance. You can probably get it right then. But you don’t have any real say in a film. And quite honestly, I probably drive everybody mad and go on and on and on and want to do another take and – because I never feel that it’s right. So I always feel huge pressure. It’s an odd feeling, but when you’re there and you’re having to do it, the choice you make has to be absolutely right. And of course, it can’t be. It just absolutely can’t be. So you don’t really have a say in it. I find it very hard because I don’t know that I trust myself to know that – if it’s good or if that’s the take that should be or whether we just do it with one take or there isn’t time to do anymore. You know, I find that real pressure.

DAVIES: And I that can lead to some tension at times. Yeah.

SMITH: Yes. I think there’s always great tension because there never seems to be enough – there is always pressure. There’s always pressure because there isn’t enough time. There’s never enough time for a movie, it seems to me. Never.

DAVIES: You know, what’s interesting about it is that I think so many people see your performances. And you make it look easy. I mean, this is natural. There’s no other way that line could have been read.

SMITH: But that’s a bit of the pressure…

DAVIES: And you’re saying that you have to work really hard and prepare, and you still feel insecure on the day you shoot.

SMITH: Yes, because that’s the pressure. You want so much to get it right. And – you know, there’s a thing in your head that kind of says to you, I think that was nearer it, you know? But when people are all around you and the pressure is that you’re going to get this shot in, you know, the light’s going to go – I have such admiration for film actors. Like, I can’t tell you. They were all – well, not all of them were there, but at the BAFTAs the other night – and I was there, and I just thought, my goodness.

DAVIES: The BAFTA Awards, yes, yes, yeah.

SMITH: Yes. And Leonardo DiCaprio was there, and you just think God, what he went through in that movie.

DAVIES: Oh, “The Revenant,” yeah.

SMITH: Yeah.

DAVIES: He gave you a big kiss, which got a lot of attention, by the way.

SMITH: He did indeed. That was the thrill for me (laughter) a real thrill because I think he’s a terrific actor. And I’ve – I’ve been rooting and voting for him since “Gilbert Grape.” I thought he was so amazing in that one. He was a young man, really very young boy, wasn’t he?

DAVIES: Do you watch your films and your…


DAVIES: …Television performances?



SMITH: Well, because I can’t do anything about them. That’s part of the pressure.

DAVIES: Yeah, so you’re never quite satisfied?

SMITH: Well, no. And then you watch them, you think why in the name of God did I do that? I’m sitting here cringing listening to – back to those things. You think oh, now I do it all differently now.

DAVIES: We’re all enjoying it and you’re cringing.

SMITH: But I’d do everything differently. No, I wouldn’t. You can’t go back and do that.

DAVIES: When I told people I was going to interview Maggie Smith, I just can’t tell you the number of people who said oh, my heavens you’re so lucky. I just love her. And I think, you know, you’ve particularly had an expanded audience with “Downton Abbey” and the “Harry Potter” films. But, you know, you’ve had such a terrific career and you’ve achieved so much and so many people just love you. And I’m wondering what that kind of mass adoration feels like to you. Is it gratifying? Is it scary? Is it – can you even comprehend it?

SMITH: Well, it’s only happened to me since “Downton Abbey,” so I blame the whole thing on television.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

SMITH: It’s odd. And I’ve said this before, but I find it very difficult to do anything on my own now because people recognize me. This has never happened to me before because I haven’t really done television before. But I suppose if you’re in people’s rooms all the time, I don’t know – I was thinking the other night with people like DiCaprio and, you know, those big stars and Cate Blanchett, and you just think how did they exist? It’s so difficult. And I think now it’s very intrusive because of these cellphones, you know, with cameras…

DAVIES: Right.

SMITH: …Where you get people who want to take a picture of you or take a picture of them with you. And its – I don’t know…

DAVIES: So how do you…

SMITH: So it’s very hard – it’s hard to do anything on your own.

DAVIES: How do you react when someone – you know, John Cleese says he just tells people I don’t do pictures. I’m sorry.

SMITH: No, I do say that. It depends – obviously, it depends who it is. If it’s a very young person, you know, a child, of course you would. But it is incredibly intrusive, and I usually say do you like having your picture taken? Maybe they do, I don’t know.

DAVIES: And if it’s not too intrusive, you live in a 15th century farmhouse, is that right?

SMITH: At the moment, it looks as though it’s never been at all because it’s being – I’m having to really have a go at rewiring it and do things because it is indeed very old.

DAVIES: Electric lights (laughter)…

SMITH: Well, yes, I think you turn every light on with rubber shoes on, if you’ve got any sense.

DAVIES: Do you want to take one question about “Harry Potter,” or would you rather be released?

SMITH: I would – I would rather be released. I think you’ve been adorable, though.

DAVIES: OK, I don’t know about that (laughter).

SMITH: What do you want to about “Harry Potter?”

DAVIES: Just what was it like to play that role, to act in those films?

SMITH: Well, I’ll tell you I just did adore Daniel – Daniel Radcliffe, who I had worked with before “Harry Potter” and spent a long time telling all the producers they had to see him because I thought he was so terrific. And it’s been sad thinking about it because of Alan Rickman…

DAVIES: Oh, who died recently, yeah.

SMITH: …Who – yes, he was such a terrific actor, and that was such a terrific character that he played. And it was a joy to be with him. We used to laugh together because we ran out of reaction shots. They were always – when everything had been done and the children were finished, they would turn the camera around and we’d have to do various reaction shots of amazement or sadness and things. And we used to say we’d got to about number 200-and-something and we’d run out of knowing what to do when the camera came around on us. But he was a joy.

DAVIES: Maggie Smith, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

DAVIES: Maggie Smith stars in the new film “The Lady And The Van.” Her performances as the Dowager Countess came to an end March 6 with the final episode of the Masterpiece series “Downton Abbey.” Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the album problem from Bonnie Raitt. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Arts & Life : NPR

From Ingenue To Antigone: Juliette Binoche Discusses Acting, Aging And Family members



The Oscar-winning actress plays Antigone in a new translation of Sophocles’ 2,000-year-old tragedy. “It is a really potent play,” Binoche says. Sophocles “nonetheless is bringing so significantly truth in our lives.”



This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, the French actress Juliette Binoche, won an Oscar for her performance in the 1996 film “The English Patient.” She’s also recognized in America for her roles in the films “Chocolat,” “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” and “Clouds Of Sils Maria.” She’s now on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the title part of the Greek tragedy “Antigone.” This production of the Sophocles play, with a new translation, was initial performed in Luxembourg, London and Edinburgh earlier this year and will tour in October with performances in Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor and the Kennedy Center. We’re going to hear the interview Binoche recorded for our show with FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale, who hosts the podcast Death, Sex &amp Money. In “Antigone,” Binoche plays the daughter of Oedipus. Her brother fought and died in a civil war. He’s deemed a traitor by her uncle, King Creon, the ruler of Thebes. Creon has decreed that the brother should not be afforded the dignity of a burial. Antigone defies the order, buries her brother and is sentenced to death. She says she’s responding to a larger demand than the ruling of an authoritarian king. This clip is from a BBC film made of the production.


JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Antigone) What they get in touch with law did not commence these days or yesterday. When they say law, they do not imply a statute of these days or yesterday. They mean the unwritten, unfaltering, unshakable ordinances of the gods that no human becoming can ever wrap around. These laws reside forever. No one particular knows how they were born. You believed I would transgress them for fear of some mere mortal man’s decree. No.


ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Juliette Binoche, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BINOCHE: Thank you extremely much for getting me.

SALE: What about this play in distinct, this tragedy, have been you drawn to?

BINOCHE: Sophocles is still – 2,500 years following, he’s nevertheless bringing so much truth in our lives. I am fascinated by it and how can a play – can survive that quantity of time, ’cause it does bring the concerns about the politics, the gods, the belief. It really is a extremely potent play.

SALE: One particular of the concerns is what is the suitable remedy of terrorists – men and women who had been deemed terrorists by the state? And just months just before the play opened in London, there were, of course, the shootings in Paris, the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I wonder how did that – did that affect your interpretation of the play and how you saw your character?

BINOCHE: It did bring some inquiries to me due to the fact I was reading in the newspaper that the criminals who did that – nobody wanted to bury them. The area, you know, exactly where they had been born or were raised did not want to bury them. Everyone was trying to steer clear of it, and a Muslim neighborhood, finally, in the middle of the night, buried them, hidden from the other folks. And it truly brought the question to me, you know, simply because Antigone, my character in the play, is burying her brother, who’s a criminal, as well. And no one wants to bury him. But Antigone, his sister, wants to bury him. And so I believed, OK, this is the case of the jihadists, you know, who – no one wants to bury them, and yet they are becoming buried. I know me, Juliette, I would bury anybody. If you happen to be a human being, no matter what you have accomplished, you have to bury your people. That is the law that is beyond, for me, queries. It’s part of what we do. We have to bury our men and women. It says in “Oedipus At Colonus” that if you do not bury somebody, their soul will wander about for the – till the eternity – the end of the eternity, which is in no way. And so, for me, most likely ’cause I am a mother and there is something about providing birth, you give the body the possibility to live. You have to take care of it till the finish. It’s – there is no query to me. The moral judgment, you know, the very good and bad is somehow on yet another level.

SALE: A single of your very first starring roles, in 1985’s “Rendez-vous,” was co-written by Olivier Assayas. And, practically 30 years later, he wrote and directed you in the film, the “Clouds Of Sils Maria,” which came out last year. In the role he wrote for you, you play a lauded and prolific actor, a lot like yourself, who is returning to a play that created the character well-known. The twist in the film is that when you had been young, you played the young ingenue, a character named Sigrid. Now you happen to be playing an older, somewhat bitter woman named Helena who falls in enjoy with Sigrid. Let’s listen to a clip, and to set it up, you have been giving notes to the young actress who’s now playing opposite you – the actress is named Jo-Ann, played by Chloe Grace Moretz – and you happen to be asking her about a pivotal scene where you’re playing the older character, Helena. And Jo-Snn, the younger actress, is playing Sigrid, the part you played years before.


BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) I wanted to ask you. You know the scene at the starting of act three, when you inform me you want to leave and I get on my knees and I beg you to remain – you happen to be on the telephone ordering pepperoncini pizza for your coworkers in accounting. What – you leave without hunting at me, as if I did not exist. If you could pause for a second, you know, Helena’s distress would final longer when she’s left alone in her office. Properly, the way you’re playing it, the audience follows you out but instantly forgets about her, so…

CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: (As Jo-Ann Ellis) So – so what?

BINOCHE: (As Maria Enders) Properly, when I played Sigrid, I held it longer. I thought it was a lot more effective and dramatic. I imply, it actually played nicely.

MORETZ: (As Jo-Ann Ellis) Effectively, no one actually gives a [expletive] about Helena at that point, do they? I am sorry, but, I mean, it’s fairly clear to me this poor woman’s all washed up. I mean your character, correct, not you.

SALE: You 1st had your breakthrough roles as that young ingenue, and you are at a diverse point in your profession now. Have you felt the require to reinvent yourself, as your character in this film does?

BINOCHE: You know, ingenue does not imply something to me, you know, because this innocence that has – the flavor of innocence in the ingenue word is, for me – you can be ingenue at any age. Innocence has practically nothing to do with age. And I would even say that as you peeling off in your life, you turn out to be far more and more oneself. You take away all the education, all the fears. For me, it is – there are changes in life, you know, that undoubtedly – you can not hold on to things when you’re reaching at a particular age due to the fact when you happen to be holding on, it doesn’t operate. And this scene you just played is a pivotal scene for my character in the film simply because it’s the moment where she sees there’s no going back. And when she accepts that she can not possess anyone, she can’t alter anything, she cannot – she does not have the power as just before, somehow she gets onto one more level of consciousness and onto a level of freedom. And you gain your freedom to get to the core of oneself. That’s truly what I am experiencing.

SALE: The character that you play in the film, named Marie Enders, has several similarities with you in your career. You both broke out…

BINOCHE: Oh, you consider that.

SALE: Nicely…

BINOCHE: (Laughter) And the director tends to make you consider that. That is how excellent he is.

SALE: You can tell me the methods that you’re really distinct from Marie, but there are notable similarities. You each broke out as young actors on stage.

BINOCHE: That’s what occurs to actors, largely.


SALE: That is true. You both performed in “The Seagull,” both you and the character in the film.

BINOCHE: Yeah, that – I stated to him, you tricky, you know, simply because you take real details and put it in your – into your film. And he laughed simply because he knows it is correct.

GROSS: We’re listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale recorded with FRESH AIR – with French actress Juliette Binoche. Following we take a brief break, we’ll speak about how Binoche was found by the French film director, Jean-Luc Godard. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale recorded with French actress Juliette Binoche, who is now starring in a production of “Antigone” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


SALE: You were just turning 20 years old when a photo of you caught the eye of Jean-Luc Godard. And he approached you about a meeting.


SALE: You starred in his 1985 film, “Hail Mary.” Do you know what he was responding to from that photograph of you? Do you have a sense?

BINOCHE: Effectively, to tell you the truth, it was my initial boyfriend. He was an Italian, superb person, really, really good and quite generous. He really took care of me when I had no place to reside, no income, no practically nothing, and I was, you know, being a cashier in a large division retailer and performing my theater classes in the evening simply because my parents couldn’t assist me financially. And I bear in mind – he was taking images at the time. He had a camera and I asked him to take pictures of me. And I would create the images myself in the bathroom, you know, building my films and undertaking – because it was much less high-priced. So one particular day, I asked him to do the photos (laughter), and he did not want to do it. And I was really pissed with him simply because I required these images. So finally he took those photos, but my expression was, like, pissed off at him.


BINOCHE: And my eyes had been really saying it. So I think that the intensity of my face in this image – it was the picture that Godard liked, you know?

SALE: What was it like to work with Godard at the extremely begin of your career?

BINOCHE: You know, when I feel back, I recognize him far more than at the time when I worked with him since, as a young actress, you know I was coming out of this school and the teacher – my teacher at the time was just so – taking time, being generous, you know, and mothering me. So when I went to Jean-Luc Godard’s film, I believed, he’s going to support me, of course, and it wasn’t that at all. He only had five individuals shooting, you know, the sound engineer, the DP, the – possibly a script. And I keep in mind he was very impatient. But when I look back, he always wanted – he always shot when he truly felt like shooting. So there was some type of sincere require that he was in touch with, with himself. And that I really appreciate now that I know it. At the time, I remember that I didn’t know which way to go ’cause one particular day he was providing me a monologue and stated I am going to put an ear plug in your ear and give you the text because it was a single day after the other and I did not have the memory to, you know, execute this monologue. And then I arrive on the set, you know, ready to go with this monologue and he mentioned, no, fine, you just say those two sentences. That is sufficient. You know, so I had to adapt with his emotions going up and down. So I was very insecure. I knew – couldn’t bear any makeup and – simply because I was obtaining red like crazy, at the time. You know, my emotions had been really close to my skin. So I remember becoming extremely ashamed of all the reds coming up my cheeks – things like that, you know, easy factors.

SALE: Both of your parents have been performers. Your mother was an actress, your father, an actor and director.

BINOCHE: So my father, really, was touring around the globe in a theater, you know, group he had.

SALE: Yeah.

BINOCHE: He was not sending funds so it was really insecure sometime. My mother – she was an actress. She was, you know, studying all – in all this. And then, at 30 years old, she stopped everything and went into studying literature – French literature. And she got her exams and she became a teacher. So that was very courageous of her. But then, at 50 years old, she stopped every thing and went back to acting and directing and writing, as nicely. So I had parents that have been quite sort of accessible to whatever they had been feeling they necessary to do somehow. They didn’t try to be too standard. In that way, that was a fantastic, you know, model as you go with what is inside. It does not appear secure from outside, but inside, you have to start off from inside. And that is truly what happened. So regardless of whether I was an actor or painter or dancer, it didn’t matter – or what ever I wanted to do, it didn’t matter. It’s just that you stick to what’s inside.

SALE: So you began studying theater and acting…

BINOCHE: Very young.

SALE: …As a teenager.


SALE: And then you lived with your sister right after leaving college?

BINOCHE: At 15 years old I was nevertheless at college and had the idea whether or not I was going to go to a boarding college, you know, an hour from exactly where my mother was living or go to Paris with my sister and live there with my grandmother, truly, was functioning. We were living in a Presbyterian since she was the cook of the priest. And we had – we rented to all – know all the details, sorry about that – and we rented a small old studio there where I lived with my sister.

SALE: You and your sister – how old had been you?

BINOCHE: I was 15.

SALE: And how old was she?

BINOCHE: Eighteen.

SALE: How did your connection with your sister modify when you became popular?

BINOCHE: She went to China for a year during that period of time when I became a lot more properly-known actress in France. So when she came back from China, she was extremely shocked. And she truly changed her name because every single time she had to sign a verify she had to say how we have been connected and all that. And it was really a discomfort in the ass for her.

SALE: (Laughter).

BINOCHE: So, you know, I entirely understand. Almost certainly not simple for her to start off with. Now – I mean, we talked a lot about it. We’re very close.

SALE: I want to ask you about what occurred in your life in 1996 when “The English Patient” came out and was this crucial and commercial juggernaut, winning nine Oscars, such as yours for Greatest Supporting Actress. How did starring in that film alter your life?

BINOCHE: The shooting was – the – to start off with, actually, my hands were trembling. I was so frightened. I do not know why. I think it had to do with the challenge of it. There was one thing that I was playing this function scared me. I do not know precisely what it was but there was an inside feeling that produced me shake. And then the second month of shooting, I was entirely confident because I was in his arms, somehow, in Anthony Minghella’s arms, due to the fact Anthony Minghella was a force.

SALE: The director.

BINOCHE: He was – he has this capacity to assistance in being present and intelligent and adapting himself. And he had a vision of his film fairly clear and extremely supportive and loving. And so out of that, the whirlwind of the promotion and the quantity of interviews we did for the film around the world, traveling about, it was, like, new to me. But, you know, to tell you the truth, just ahead of the Oscar – three months prior to – I was fired from a film. And it was the most horrible knowledge I had because I’ve by no means been fired by anybody due to the fact I give myself so much – 200 %. I did not count on it. And I was genuinely at the bottom of the – how do you say – of the properly.

SALE: Yeah.

BINOCHE: That, you know, three months before – and so when I got the Oscar, it was like a large joke to me. I just could laugh inside so much because life is – it in no way ends, you know? It’s constantly surprising you.

SALE: Did it transform your life?

BINOCHE: It transforms my interviews.


SALE: That is funny. Juliette Binoche, thank you so considerably for joining us on FRESH AIR. Thank you extremely considerably.

GROSS: Juliette Binoche spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Anna Sale, who hosts the WNYC podcast, Death, Sex &amp Funds. Binoche is starring in a production of “Antigone” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with performances through October four.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our internet site terms of use and permissions pages at for additional data.

NPR transcripts are produced on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability could vary. This text could not be in its final form and might be updated or revised in the future. Please be conscious that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Arts &amp Life : NPR