Anna Chancellor: ‘I’m a bit “light ent” for those monumental classic parts’

The actress talks about her dream role in The Seagull, her debt to Four Weddings… and why we need more working-class writers

Anna Chancellor, 51, lived a “chaotic” life before finding success aged 28, playing Hugh Grant’s spurned lover, Duckface, in Four Weddings and a Funeral. She has since played leading roles on television in Pride and Prejudice, The Hour and the current series New Blood, and on stage in Private Lives and Boston Marriage. She plays the egotistical actress and mother, Arkadina, in The Seagull, part of the Young Chekhov season – also featuring Platonov and Ivanov – adapted by David Hare and directed by Jonathan Kent. Originally staged at Chichester, the plays transfer to the National Theatre from 14 July. She has a 29-year-old daughter, Poppy, with the poet Jock Scott, and lives in London with her second husband, Redha Debbah.

How were you cast as Arkadina?
I did Private Lives with Jonathan Kent in Chichester. He and David [Hare] had been planning the Young Chekhov project for quite a while. Jonathan asked me to be Arkadina and I was thrilled – every actress wants to play Arkadina.

She’s fun but monstrous. Chekhov’s pen is on fire when it hits the paper and he is writing for her. We spend most of our lives carefully stepping around each other, but for her there’s a complete abandonment of propriety. She is given a complete free rein to be totally narcissistic and self-obsessed.

How do these three plays show Chekhov’s development as a writer?
Platonov is this five- or six-hour sprawl, which David has honed into a coherent, perfect piece: so funny and melodramatic and rather Germanic somehow. Ivanov is an extraordinary, brave play: here’s a young writer taking you right into the core of this depressive, unlikable, destructive character. He was only 27 when he wrote The Seagull, but the characters are finely woven, more sophisticated.

Is it better to see the plays singly or “binge-watch” them in a day?
My friends who came and saw all three were electrified by it.

Are you happy with your career arc?
Are you saying I’m a late bloomer? [Laughs]. Because I had a child when I was very young and I brought her up, it [my career] could so easily not have happened, so I feel very lucky. But even when it was a slow burn, I put on plays or did workshops in Restoration comedy with the actress Selina Cadell, so I learned a lot, technically. I have paid my dues, I really, really have.

Anna Chancellor and Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Anna Chancellor as Duckface, about to get jilted at the altar by Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Photograph: Channel 4/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Is it a blessing or a curse to be forever identified as “Duckface”?
A huge blessing! It completely changed my working life, that film – not that it made me a big star, but it enabled me to become a working actress. It would be churlish to mind being called Duckface. Also, I love ducks.

You’ve described your 20s as “chaotic”. What changed?
I stopped drinking when I was about 33. I must say, I’m glad I had fun, because I don’t look back and think I didn’t have enough parties or sex or late nights.

At 51, what do you think of the lack of roles for older women?
We are so un-evolved. Why don’t people find women as interesting as men or think they don’t? If it weren’t slightly depressing, it would be slightly funny. The statistics are so paltry – I read that only 17% of extras in films are women. But I’m hoping I might be one of the lucky few who manage to get through that door for my 50s and 60s, and hopefully beyond.

You’re from a fairly privileged background. Is our culture dominated by posh actors?
It’s simplistic to say that posh people get parts and others don’t. Where’s the writing coming from, who is supporting and finding the writers? But it’s like the female debate – if people think it’s only interesting to watch people with money, or just watch men, then clearly that is a very dull, boring point of view. Because everybody is interesting. Of course you want working-class actors to come up and be challenged and supported and have space to express themselves and take a proper role in our cultural world. Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want them to shine? And if they are not, then shame on us.

Any other big roles you want to tick off after Arkadina? Cleopatra, say?
I don’t know how good I am at Shakespeare. Is Cleopatra funny? I think I could only pull her out of a hat if I could make a joke. I think I’m a bit “light ent” for those monumental classical parts. As I get older, I’d like my acting to be more relaxed and fine, to ring the changes and work on stage with new writers and young people. Popularity comes and goes, but if you manage to refine and distil and get better, that’s the thing.

Nick Curtis

The GuardianTramp

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