Show artwork for From the Reading Room | Skyping with Miriam Margolyes

From the Reading Room | Skyping with Miriam Margolyes

Paul Galloway Skypes with Miriam Margolyes to talk about one-person shows, Sue Mengers and working in Hollywood.

Via Skype, I catch Miriam Margolyes on a Saturday morning in her study, just back from the swimming pool.

It’s a bit challenging on a Saturday because there are all the kids. But it’s good for me. I have to do it.

Another one-person show. The last time I saw you on stage was on your own in Dickens’ Women. Is there for you a special attraction for one-person shows?

Actually, I rather detest one-person shows. I would only do one that was absolutely unputdownable. There was no way I could refuse to do this particular play. It is a brilliant play. It’s terribly funny. It deals with a world with which I am familiar. And it is a huge acting challenge. So all those points mean that I have to do it.

When I stopped doing Dickens’ Women, when I finished my tour after sixty-nine performances in three continents – exhausting – I thought I’m never going to do another one-person show, but when this script came up, I said yes. Well, first I wrote to Joe Mantello, who was the original director with Bette Midler. I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Go for it; do it.’ So I’m doing it. So look out Melbourne, that’s all I can say. Look out.

What do you know of Sue Mengers, the Hollywood agent? There is a Sixty Minutes profile of her that you can see on YouTube. I don’t suppose you met her?

I came to Hollywood after Sue Mengers stopped being the power that she was. She was an incredible woman. I saw that documentary, too. And I don’t think there’s a lot of research I can do, except look at the documentary. I am taking lessons in how to do her voice and I am going to learn to smoke for the role – which I don’t do. I want to create a completely real character with my director helping me. That’s quite a tall order. That for me is the biggest thing: to make Sue Mengers a real person.

You mention how tiring the Dickens show was. And there is an awful lot to learn, a lot of lines to learn, which can get hard at your time of life. And there aren’t other actors to help you if you get stuck. Does it feel like working without a net?

I think it worries all actors doing a one-person show, never mind at my time of life. And absolutely, nowadays it’s harder to make the lines stick. But once they stick, they’re in. Once I’ve got it, I’m sure I’ll be able to reproduce it. But it is harder. Everything is harder. I’m older. I don’t move so well. I get tired quicker, but I’ve still got more energy than most people my age. What always gives you the passion and the strength is the audience. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is a one-person show or not.

There’s a job to be done and a mountain to climb with this particular piece. At an hour-and-a-half, which is shorter than Dickens’ Women by half an hour, but there is no interval. (So people better wee-wee first.) So it’s going to be quite a testing experience for me, but not an ordeal. It is a discovery. A journey. An exploration. A pilgrimage. It’s a piece of daring to throw at Melbourne and to see what they say. Golly, I’m looking forward to it.

What is your experience of Hollywood Agents? Are they as you might see in the movies: fast talking, deal-makers and power-players?

Yes and no. My agent in Hollywood, who just died last year, was very similar to Sue Mengers. She was Susan Smith and she was very famous. She was [adopting Susan Smith’s accent] a hard-talking foul-mouthed broad – not to put a fine point on it. But also with enormous cultural knowledge. This is what she had that I don’t think that most agents have. She had been to New York University so she knew her stuff. But she was caustic. So I know that there are agents like Sue Mengers still out there, but there are also schmoozers and soft talkers, too. There are all kinds.

The kind of power that Sue Mengers had when she was the premier agent in Hollywood, I don’t think there are so many like that now. The power is diffused now.

What is your impression of Sue Mengers?

She was wonderful because she was witty. It was her saving grace. You can forgive people their sins if they are witty. Most agents, unfortunately, are not witty. They are either good negotiators or they are good schmoozers or whatever, but to be witty as well is wonderful.

I enjoyed my time in Hollywood, but I came out of it not particularly wanting to go back to that world. I prefer the more rarefied air of theatre. I think to operate well there you need to be in love with celebrity and I’m not in love with celebrity in any way. Sue Mengers was. She was transfixed by celebrity, as indeed, truthfully, most Americans are.

I got a sense watching the documentary that she was someone who was self-conscious. That she liked to stand outside herself and watch herself being outrageous.

I think that’s true. Hollywood’s a voyeuristic society with everyone examining each other like billyo all the time, analysing other people as well as themselves. I think she was someone who quite deliberately fashioned a character for herself. Then it became who she was. It’s clear to me that people who liked her loved her. People who didn’t like her absolutely loathed her. She could be cruel and vicious. She wasn’t lazy; she really worked her socks off. But I think when Barbra Streisand left her for another agent it knocked the wind out of her sails. That was the beginning of the end. I worked with Barbra Streisand quite recently in her last picture, The Guilt Trip with Seth Rogan, and I think Barbra is a very similar character to Sue Mengers, although much more introverted. Barbra’s a wonderful artist, a performer, but she is not someone who enjoys being the cynosure of all eyes. Whereas Sue did. As I do. Which is why I’m a good person to play Sue Mengers. She enjoyed being who she was.

So you’ll be back in Melbourne in a few weeks.

I’m there for a little while. I go straight into doing another Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – which is always fun to do. I’ve just finished doing a television series in Britain. One of the odd things in my life at the moment is that I cannot remember ever being so busy. I’ve never been so old and I’ve never been so busy. So I have work until 2016. It’s funny because I can’t suddenly go somewhere, do something unexpected. I am the prisoner of my craft.

I’ll Eat You Last plays from 31 October to 20 December at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio.

Published on 8 October 2014