In a world obsessed with looks, where a celebrity’s every spot and sweat mark is photographed for magazines and gossip columnists rumourmonger about who has had a boob job, underneath, are we all floundering with our own sense of identity? For actress Amanda Drew, this is a particularly pertinent issue that she is currently exploring in The Ugly One, now playing at the Royal Court. She talks to Caroline Bishop.
Which, as it happens, fits snugly in with the theme of The Ugly One, the play by German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg that is currently running in the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs as part of Dominic Cooke’s international season. It is a theme that cast member Amanda Drew, absentmindedly fiddling with a particularly rough patch of wall as we speak, is particularly interested in. “Basically the play is about identity,” she says. “It is a very funny comedy, a satire, on our obsession with how we evaluate ourselves by our physical looks and how other people view us and base their perceptions and their ideas of our identity on the surface…and actually what is the self.”
The Ugly One is about a man, Lette, who has plastic surgery in order to change what others perceive as his ugliness. But the play, says Drew, goes much deeper than that. “It’s funny, because we’re now so immersed in the underbelly of the play, that when you mention the surface events, I’ve almost forgotten those because they’re sort of like a coat hanger for the exploration of identity. So really it’s not so much a clear cut satire on plastic surgery and our obsession with beauty. That is almost a metaphor for his coming to terms with his sense of identity and his self-acceptance.”
"I’ve obviously done some kind of brain-washing trick on myself"
Von Mayenburg’s play is an unconventional, intentionally confusing piece, and the production allows no traditional devices such as costumes or set design to define characters or locations. “None of that is a given. It’s all in the words. Everything is said, nothing is physically or literally described in our production and the writer is looking for, in his phrase, strategies to activate the spectator.”
Drew herself plays three characters, all called Fanny, who, she says, are “in many ways aspects of one woman,” and the production blurs fiction and reality by having the actors perform in their own clothes. At one point during the rehearsal process the idea was to involve the actors’ own realities to such an extent that Drew’s beloved greyhound, Ron, would be on stage. “We were sort of exploring how [identity] resonates within the actors performing the piece,” says Drew. “It’s intrinsic in the whole thing. Although we are not exploring that in a more literal way, as we were to begin with [Ron has been made redundant], that hopefully will still exist there, because we are not covering ourselves up with characterisations in this production. In various other things I might have worked far more on gaining a kind of veneer of a character, cloaking myself in the character, whereas this demands a much more exposing, stripped down delivery really.”
It is a brave piece for an actress who admits that, at the beginning of her career, she thought acting was a great way of escaping herself – something she has since realised is not true. A RADA graduate, 37-year-old Drew has enjoyed a varied career that has included a period with the Royal Shakespeare Company – which led to her being nominated for an Evening Standard Award for the London run of Eastward Ho! – several plays at the Royal Court and the Almeida, both comic and dramatic roles in the West End and on tour, plus a recent foray into television soap in EastEnders. “The more and more acting you do, the more you realise you are only ever exploring yourself in situations, that’s all you’ve got to use,” she says now. “I think certainly if I’d have realised that when I first went into acting I would have run a mile, but I’ve obviously done some kind of brain-washing trick on myself! Nowadays I find that more challenging – the less you can hide.”
With such experience on stage, it wouldn’t seem like Drew has suffered from low self-esteem all her life, but, she tells me, fidgeting with the wall, that she has always had a fear that she wasn’t very good at acting. “I was always wrestling with a hugely boring sense of, ‘oh I’m no good’, which I’m trying to release myself from now, 20 years in!” she smiles wryly. “I feel I’ve got to give myself a break from that sense of insecurity and doubt. I’ve always had majorly low self-esteem.”
It is for this reason that she is finding The Ugly One particularly interesting, as the central character, Lette (played by Michael Gould), also has self-esteem issues, which lead him to plastic surgery. Though Drew admits she is insecure about her looks – she worries “I never get telly jobs because I’ve got bad skin” – she would never subject herself to the surgeon’s knife. “It’s not something I think I could do, because I’d be too frightened of the knife, frightened of doing anything, frightened of looking ridiculous afterwards,” she says. “Yes, I’ve got a major sense of insecurity about my own looks, but I really try and wrestle with not pandering to that thing. Because really, the problem isn’t your looks, it’s why you’re thinking those things and that’s where you’ve got to tackle it.”
It is surprising, given this anxiety about her appearance, that Drew has exposed herself on stage before – literally. In her last outing at the Royal Court, in Mr Kolpert, directed by Richard Wilson, she had to strip naked. “When you’re on stage, whether or not you’re hidden behind a costume or whatever, I think there is some kind of imaginative leap you’ve made as an actor,” she says in explanation for how she coped with the experience. “If I walked over there in the Royal Court bar and slipped my clothes off, that would be the most heinous experience and I think everyone would curl up in shame.”
"I was always wrestling with a hugely boring sense of, ‘oh I’m no good’, which I’m trying to release myself from now, 20 years in"
Drew comes across as a strange paradox then. An experienced and respected actress who throws herself into highly exposing roles, yet has long-held insecurities underneath. Why does she put herself through it? Why work in a career where physical appearance is an integral part? Drew says that sometimes, coming out of auditions, she knows she won’t get the part because she is physically wrong for it. “I’m subject all the time to those kind of thoughts and it is a bit of a battle to not allow them to dampen you,” she says. “But at the same time,” she explains, “acting is also a therapy in that you get a chance to explore all these things within characters. I mean, this job has come up, it’s very interesting for me for [these] reasons.”
Another job that helped her explore her own issues was EastEnders. Drew joined the show for a period of nine months, ending in June this year, to play Dr May Wright, a married career woman desperate for a baby and unable to conceive. The convoluted storyline led the increasingly unstable May to eventually attempt to kidnap the newborn baby of a woman who had become pregnant by May’s adulterous husband. “I think working on EastEnders allowed me to explore how my mum dealt with issues, in terms of the level of emotional distress that the character had,” says Drew. “My mum, she had four children so she didn’t have any parallels with May’s journey, but I think women, people, we’re only ever [a moment] away from losing our sense of control. She [Drew’s mother] had to suffer certain things – post natal depression, various things that weren’t talked about in those days – and so I think what’s interesting for me about playing May is, in many people’s eyes she was a sympathetic character and in just as many other people’s eyes she was a villain. When I was growing up looking at my mum, who I dearly love now and have come to an understanding of, I very much was sometimes frightened of her, sometimes I thought she was a bad person, and actually she was a woman struggling with many different emotional issues and chemical issues.”
Drew found it difficult to play such intense scenes at the breakneck speed that the soap’s filming schedule demanded. “I had two scenes where I was rocking with a doll, mourning the loss of the baby – a very heightened emotion to get into suddenly. I had about 30 seconds to do the last one, and they went ‘Cut’ and everyone was packing up around me and I was still on the floor on my knees in my nightgown with this doll. I was like, oh my God this is such a weird place to be. Everyone was leaving the studio and I was still there. You actually can’t allow yourself to [recover]. You’ve got to just slot it away.”
It is, at times, hard to separate the emotions of such a character from her own identity, she feels. “I think you have to have an objectivity to play that sort of character, you’d be lost if you didn’t,” she says of May. “It’s terribly hard as an actor to take an emotional journey each night, if you’re in the theatre or if you’re filming over a period of time, and not allow those emotions to vibrate on you, because it’s a very powerful thing, acting. It’s very difficult to not allow those things to resonate on a level of reality.”
Particularly so when you are recognised for being someone you are not. Interestingly though, Drew has not minded the recognition she now gets from being in the soap. “I thought I would find it unpleasant and in fact I found it the reverse. I’ve found living in this huge anonymous city, having people say ‘oh hello, morning Doctor’ and that kind of thing, is surprisingly lovely. They look at you as if they know you. Literally, you turn your head and someone will go ‘May!’ You think, how can they possibly read that? I look so scruffy in real life and she was always a smartly dressed, professional woman, but that’s the power of it, that form.”
It is sad though, that Drew enjoys this recognition as someone else and yet seems so down on herself. While Lette struggles with self-acceptance in The Ugly One, maybe Drew can use the play as her current ‘therapy’ to explore her own issues of identity and self-esteem. After all, sometimes, she says, acting the strangest things gives you an outlet for your own demons. A while ago, Drew filmed a Vicks advert in which she had to throw a child-like tantrum in a supermarket aisle. “I can’t tell you how liberating and fun that was, just to pretend to lose it!” she says, “Similarly, to pretend to be acting out very mad intentions actually is strangely empowering. You probably exorcise a whole load of bizarre… which we all have. That’s why we have dreams. I suppose acting is another level of dreaming.”
The Ugly One plays until 13 October.