Actress Insights

Contemporary actresses give personal insights into when they first decided to become performers, how the ‘first actresses’ have inspired them, and the ongoing challenges of a career in the profession today.

When did you decide that you would like to become an actress?


Emma Thompson

by Tim Richmond, 1988
© Tim Richmond

I decided I wanted to be in theatre when I was 16 and had attended several consecutive performances of Racine’s Andromache at the Avignon Theatre Festival. I think it was because everyone took their clothes off.

Emma Thompson


Helena Bonham Carter

by Trevor Leighton, 1993
© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London

I remember wanting to become an actress since about five years old. I blame a lot of it on an actress friend called Lisa Harrow who swept into our lives about then. She seemed impossibly glamorous and beautiful and both my brothers and father had massive crushes on her. I remember thinking whatever she is doing she has got it right. I still wonder today if Lisa had been a plumber, my life would have taken a different turn. Later on, when I was thirteen my father became dreadfully ill and it was then that I looked up theatrical agents. It might have been a curious reaction to have when your father was critically ill, but looking back I can see it made perfect sense: I did it in an attempt to escape and create my own reality. A holiday from myself.

Helena Bonham Carter


Sophie Okonedo

by Sal Idriss, 2002
© Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London

I am afraid the start to my career was very unglamorous. I was watching the royal variety show on television with my mum. I was about 7 or 8. They performed a segment from the musical Annie. In the chorus, playing one of the orphans was a little black girl with plaits that looked a bit like me. I was transfixed. Up till that point I had not really thought that anyone who looked like me could be on the stage. At least I had seen no evidence of it. From that moment on that’s what I wanted to do. Be an actress. Very little deviation really.

Sophie Okonedo


Zoe Tapper

by Sarah Dunn, 2009
© Sarah Dunn

I think I must have been about 12 when I was asked by my next door neighbour if I wanted to play a fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at my local theatre.  I remember that experience so vividly - the smell of the rehearsal room, the excitement before curtain up, the chatter in the dressing room and the first rush of adrenaline when I stepped out in front of the audience.  I was hooked!

Zoe Tapper


Do any of the ‘First Actresses’ particularly interest or intrigue you?


Helena Bonham Carter

by Trevor Leighton, 1993
© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London

Nell Gwyn in particular and Nelly Ternan, Dickens' mistress, always held a romance for me, without knowing much about them. I have a hopeless nostalgia for times gone by and am fascinated by lives lived in the past but I see probably a lot more romance where I fear there must have been a lot of discomfort, illness, fragility of life, and boredom.

Helena Bonham Carter


Anna Popplewell
,
by Francesco Guidicini, 2008
© Francesco Guidicini / National Portrait Gallery, London

Sarah Siddons and Eliza Haywood – Sarah Siddons was by all accounts a phenomenal actress. I would have loved to have seen her Lady Macbeth… and the ‘unsex me here’ speech must have played interestingly in a cultural climate that was so heatedly debating what was and wasn’t the ‘proper’ way for a woman to behave!

Haywood began as an actress but she was also the most prolific prose writer. One of the reasons she interests me so much is that despite her enormous contribution to 18th century prose, relatively little is known about her personal background. She’s a mysterious one! She unapologetically produced reams of amatory fiction, regardless of the controversy and accusations such licentious subject matter attracted.

Anna Popplewell


Zoe Tapper

by Sarah Dunn, 2009
© Sarah Dunn

My first role out of drama school was playing Nell Gwyn in Richard Eyre's film Stage Beauty, so of course she holds a special place in my heart.  When I was researching her for the role, I was captivated by her indomitable spirit.  She had a wit and a skill as a comic actress that belied her upbringing and orange-selling roots.

Zoe Tapper


Zöe Wanamaker
,
by Jillian Edelstein, 1990
© Jillian Edelstein / Camera Press

I find all the ‘First Actresses’ fascinating. My knowledge of theatrical history is very limited and this exhibition inspires me to understand and discover each and every one of them.  One of the first things that strikes me is that they all had families and mixing work with motherhood is extremely stressful and demanding.  They were multi-taskers.

Zöe Wanamaker


Lily Cole as Elizabeth I

by Eitan Lee Al, 2005
© Eitan Lee Al

The inner compulsion to act, before the days of film or mass media, and at times when it was much more controversial, suggests a kind of kindred spirit that transcends time and makes these women very intriguing to me.

Lily Cole


The status of the actress has changed dramatically since the days of the First Actresses, when it was often seen as a disreputable occupation and not a profession. Are there still obstacles or difficulties to overcome in the career of an actress now?


Dame Harriet Mary Walter
,
by Geoff Wilson, 1992
© Geoff Wilson

There are obstacles for actors of both genders, but actresses – though they haven’t the social stigma that made life a very real struggle for actresses in the past – there remain some deep seated prejudices in some of the minds of the public even when coupled with certain admiration. There is an ambivalence towards artists of all kinds in society at large and actresses still have to work hard to be taken seriously.

Dame Harriet Walter


Lily Cole as Elizabeth I

by Eitan Lee Al, 2005
© Eitan Lee Al

The media pimps! Self and fears...

Lily Cole


Emma Thompson
,
by Tim Richmond, 1988
© Tim Richmond

I wish it were still disreputable. It’s easier to say or show the human condition if you are somehow beyond the pale. When my grandmother learnt that my father was going to marry an actress, she refused to speak to him for 3 days. In fact, I believe she locked herself in the toilet.

Emma Thompson


Helena Bonham Carter

by Trevor Leighton, 1993
© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London

In all honesty I have spent most of my life thinking it still a disreputable reputation in the sense that it isn’t a very responsible or grown up way to make a living. But equally we do serve a use:  I think we help make people feel, or laugh, surrender themselves emotionally where they can’t necessarily in the full flow of daily life.

The most salient difference between now and then is how the profession has been transfigured by the media and fashion world. The stress on what one looks like and wears is extreme; an award ceremony is more about what dress you are wearing than the film you are in.

As for the actress living today, I would say there are innumerable challenges, obstacles, difficulties. The most obvious is consistent employment, and the challenge of making a living through acting. Only a ridiculously small and unfair percentage of the profession is employed at any one time. Many careers have dwindled or soared on quality of decision making. Oh, and luck. There are obstacles and difficulties but if you are lucky enough to be in work, it is the most fantastic job in the world.

Helena Bonham Carter