From tap-dancing to acting opposite Derek Jacobi, Gina McKee’s career is founded on the principle of learning as much as she can, finds Caroline Bishop.
I have suddenly found myself receiving an acting masterclass. Just minutes into my phone conversation with Gina McKee she is giving me a lesson in the process of rehearsal under director Michael Grandage. Then she moves on to the skill of learning lines, and after that, explains how she analyses the character she is playing. She speaks so fluidly that it is hard to get a word in. McKee, I am discovering, is relishing every aspect of playing Goneril opposite Derek Jacobi as King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse.
All this is spoken in a voice that would be familiar to those who know the actress from her screen roles in Our Friends In The North, The Forsyte Saga, Notting Hill and In The Loop: breathily low-key and sultry, with a hint of her Geordie roots coming through on certain words. Occasionally a brief giggle punctuates her sentences, hinting at a mischievous side beneath the informative, yet impersonal, delivery of the McKee masterclass.
Of preparing to play Goneril she says: “You start to write down all the facts, everything you know that is mentioned in the text, everything that is said about the person, whether it’s somebody’s opinion of that person, whether it is fact, and from all of the things that you have there in the text you can then decide what is useful and you take it from there.”
So what did she discover about her character? That Goneril is the eldest of Lear’s three daughters, married but without an heir – “I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to acknowledge that that clearly must be an issue” – a woman McKee portrays as increasingly unhappy in her marriage and irritated by having to deal with a parent who is succumbing to the ravages of old age. “She is married to this man who clearly she ends up having a great deal of contempt for, and they have no children and she lives in a world where she is, by her birth, in a very political position but she doesn’t really have the power to do anything with that. So she is sort of between the devil and the deep blue sea in a way.”
“My fear prompted me to try and do as much as I could on my own. You just want to try and be the best that you can be”
McKee’s trademark pale skin and coolly attractive, slightly austere features lend Goneril a wily, tough manner which sees her brazenly court the sexual attentions of Edmund and berate her husband while literally holding him by the balls. For McKee, the strength of the character was appealing. “I like to try new things and be put in situations where you’re on a good learning curve and have characters that differ, so you’re not in a creative cul-de-sac if you like. I hadn’t played anybody like her in a while so I figured it would be good to try.”
Her thirst for learning is something that pervades our conversation. “I like to give myself a bit of fear in order to inspire a learning curve,” she says at one point.
It is a work ethic that was set in motion during the early part of her career. After growing up in a mining community in County Durham, McKee started acting in youth theatre companies before being spotted for a role in 1970s children’s television programme Quest Of Eagles. Though she subsequently applied to drama school, she was not offered a place, an event that, at the beginning of her adult career, drove her towards self-development. “I think in my early 20s – well I don’t think, I know – I had a very strong concern about that. So I’d go off to the City Lit, or I’d go to workshops. I was tap-dancing, I was juggling, I was doing a regular voice class. Then when [I could] afford it I would get tuition to do with dialect and things like that, so I would try to do as much as I could afford to on my own.”
“I was worried that I was missing out,” she continues. “But of course you come to realise that a lot of your learning curve happens on the set, on the stage, and you can learn skills and techniques and everything. But I just know that my fear prompted me to try and do as much as I could on my own. You just want to try and be the best that you can be.”
Her dedication paid off. McKee developed a career that has made her a familiar face on screen; after her BAFTA-winning turn in Our Friends In The North propelled her into the public consciousness in 1996, she has combined gritty British drama – including Jimmy McGovern’s The Street and recent serial The Silence – with roles in high-profile films such as Notting Hill and Atonement. On stage, she has been seen in previous Donmar productions of Pinter’s Old Times and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as well as Aristocrats at the National Theatre and Pinter double-bill The Lover and The Collection in the West End. Her aim, she says, is to do parts that “give you a bit of fire in your belly”.
Playing Goneril alongside Jacobi fits this bill, not least because she says she is getting her own masterclass from the theatrical knight. “Inspirational is not a word you should use lightly but I use it hand on heart, he is,” she says of Jacobi. Was she intimidated by the prospect of working with one of British theatre’s national treasures? “I’ve got one of those coping mechanisms where I pretend that I’m not! I wouldn’t say intimidating but I just have a huge amount of respect for him and that made me anxious to get things right and be as supportive and as on the ball as possible. And I think that’s how it came out. But he is such a wonderfully approachable and gorgeous person that you can’t fail to feel relaxed with him.”
“It’s never mattered to me a great deal what age I am, and I still feel like that”
At 46, McKee has a way to go before reaching the veteran status of her septuagenarian co-star. However, age is something she has thought about whilst appearing in King Lear, as the subject of growing old is a major theme of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which the king mentally disintegrates over the course of the play.
McKee seizes upon the subject with passion. “I would go on about it for a long, long time,” she says. “I think it’s a real political hot potato and set to get even hotter because of the generation which will live longer and basically need a lot of care. I think those elements within this play speak to us a massive amount at the moment. I’m kind of in the middle [age-wise] so it’s good because you’ve got enough history to inform the future, and so you can hopefully take a good rounded view. But I think our attitudes to getting old are filled with all sorts of fears and a lot of those fears are well founded. I think they are not only the fears of the individuals facing old age but the fears of the people who will eventually be responsible, who are left to deal with that ageing person. I think it touches us all a huge amount.”
Despite her interest in the subject, she doesn’t have any fears about her own ageing as yet. “It’s never mattered to me a great deal what age I am, and I still feel like that,” she says cheerily. “But I think maybe when my body starts to fail, my health starts to fail, I think that’s when I’ll really struggle with it. But until that point, frankly, I have never given any confessions to it and don’t intend to!”
Her future will no doubt propel her further along her self-imposed learning curve. Following the seriousness of Lear, her desire for variety means her ideal role would be in a comedy. “It’s like a shot in the arm doing comedy. I know that would be a dream job to go from this into something funny and I would very much welcome that.”
Though best known for more dramatic fare, McKee has comedy pedigree in the form of Chris Morris’s news satire Brass Eye and Armando Iannucci’s film In The Loop. In theatre, she sashayed about the stage in two flirtatious, cheeky roles in Pinter’s absurdist plays The Lover and The Collection. However, despite these, comedy is not something McKee is normally associated with. “I know!” she laughs at the intimation. “I suppose you go through phases. Since [In The Loop] people have been going, ‘oh yeah comedy, you do comedy don’t you?’ So people then remember. It’s nice to remind people that you like to try different genres.”
Would she also continue her acting education by dusting off the tap-dancing shoes and joining a musical? “No,” she laughs. “I can’t sing for toffee. If there are any musicals out there where you’re required not to sing then I could have a stab. But really I’m clueless about singing. I’d have to very privately go on a huge learning curve and then maybe tackle it, but right now I’m ill-equipped for that.” Sounds like a challenge that’s right up her street.