The In Basildon actress talks to Matthew Amer about boobs, vajazzling, incantations and her unique view on life.
“I think I needed a smacked bottom at the time.” Actress Debbie Chazen is considering her childhood. “I was probably the most precocious and irritating child in the world. I always thought I was on camera and I always had to perform at my best no matter what the situation. Sounds hellish, doesn’t it?” she laughs.
I hate to agree, but she conjures the image of a child who is hilarious for the first five minutes you spend with them, but after two hours has you lobbying for the introduction of a fleet of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque Child Catchers.
Still, at least the tiny Chazen had no doubt about the route her life should take. Imagining every minute of your existence as if it is part of a movie so long it makes the Lord Of The Rings trilogy feel like a fleeting trailer can only point to one line of work. Maybe without that quirk of perception, we would never have enjoyed her performances in Tittybangbang, Psychoville or The Smoking Room.
I’m happy to say that, however irritating a child she might have been, 30 minutes chatting to the actress, who is returning to the London stage in David Eldridge’s family drama In Basildon, is nothing but pleasurable and packed with laughter.
I wonder how the imaginary camera sees her performing in Eldridge’s Basildon-set family drama; possibly as a new cast member in staged reality show The Only Way Is Essex. The quiet mention of the all-conquering, perma-tanned show has Chazen reeling. She mentioned the idea of using the series for accent research to the Romford-born playwright at the beginning of rehearsals. He suggested, in his own unimpressed Romfordian twang, that she could just listen to him.
“I think I needed a smacked bottom”
“Maybe we’ll get a different kind of audience who might not necessarily go and see a play at all,” Chazen wonders, before quickly clarifying that “there’s no vajazzling in this production, I assure you!”
Eldridge’s latest play instead tells the tale of a family brought together around a deathbed. Len is dying, his two sisters haven’t spoken for nearly 20 years and everyone has their eyes on the inheritance. “Everyone in the play has some sort of stake and some sort of belief that they’re owed something,” she explains.
Chazen plays Jackie, the wife of Len’s nephew who, she says, “wants it bad. I woudn’t say she’s greedy, but as with most people, someone’s will and what they could potentially leave you could make a huge difference to her, and she hasn’t got the emotional ties of the family because she’s one step removed. It’s not about being nasty to anyone; it’s just knowing how much that would change her life, her future and her marriage.”
Jackie is, Chazen mentions with a touch of relief, a world away from her natural character, though she “can see the draw a big pot of money would make for somebody, especially an actor”. This is a blessing for the actress who prefers playing roles that contrast with her real self. “I find it very hard to play characters that are very like me, because, for me, acting is all about putting on another persona. If I can put on an accent and a limp and a silly wig, that makes my life so much easier.”
When you are constantly starring in the film of your life, though, you can’t always escape your own character. In that production, you always have to play yourself, no matter what the scene.
“There’s no vajazzling in this production, I assure you!”
Imagine, for instance, that it is the first day of rehearsals for a stage show about a group of women rallying in support of a friend whose husband dies from cancer, when you find a lump in your own breast. What does that look like through the lens of an old fashioned camera? What type of scene is that and how do you react?
If you’re Chazen, you react by writing a diary for the world to read. “The irony of the situation was so huge that I thought I’ve just got to write it down and see what happens. [The stage production of] Calendar Girls really saved my life and helped me through that time because it was so odd, so ironic; it was all so amazingly immaculately timed.
“The media is so dramatic about it,” Chazen, who lost both parents to cancer, continues. “You can’t see a television programme about someone with cancer without them dying of it. It’s always the worst case scenario. No-one ever just gets on with it and survives and that’s it. It’s always horrible. I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park, but I just thought I’ve got quite a good sense of humour, I’m in this play, I’m going to try and show people that whatever happens at the end I’m going to get through it with a sense of humour. If it helps them, that’s great.
“I’ve been lucky, I’m still here. I got so many letters and emails and Facebook friend requests from people afterwards that I thought I have done a bit of good here. If I can help someone get through it with a smile, that’s what I’m going to do.”
If there is anyone who can bring a smile to the face of cancer sufferers, it is probably the woman who wrote Ode To My Left Breast – “Au revoir, old chum, your end’s commenced / You lumpy old left boob / No longer to be pressed against / Whilst crammed in on the Tube” – on the eve of her mastectomy.
“Calendar Girls really saved my life”
“It can get quite depressing,” Chazen admits of the regular conversations about cancer. “But if someone needs me and I can help them, that’s what I’ve got to do. It’s not my job, but I put myself in that situation by writing the diary.” In most instances she can provide a shoulder, a crutch, an ear and the experience of having been there. But occasionally events take a turn for the worst and even her consummate cheeriness is tested. “Then I feel terrible and think ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m not a therapist.’ But I still feel I should be helping in some way.”
Maybe this is because Chazen knows that when it comes to it, when you are faced with your own mortality, you will seek solace anywhere you can. When she was looking down the barrel of her breast cancer, her husband, a tarot card reader, would perform “rituals and incantations”.
“I know it sounds nuts, I really do. I know that many people would say that it’s a load of rubbish, and maybe it is, but if you need something at that time you go down any route, don’t you?”
Indeed you do, and in the film of Chazen’s life, she has come through one dramatic climax and is on to another moment of comic happiness, back at the Royal Court, where she previously appeared in The Girlfriend Experience. She describes the venue as “one of the best theatres in the world. It’s like being at the forefront of British theatre. It’s just so exciting to come out of Sloane Square tube, the logo shines red and you think ‘I’m here again.’”
This is the point, I guess, where the film leaves Chazen looking up at that sign, smiling. The camera zooms out, further and further. Sloane Square. London.
Maybe not. That would be an ending and this film is only half way through.
"If I can put on an accent and a limp and a silly wig, that makes my life so much easier"