Playing Jackie Onassis could be a daunting task, but, as actress Lydia Leonard explains to Matthew Amer, the iconic figure “is a human being just like any other”.
CV in brief
2003 Wins BBC Carlton Hobbs Award
2005 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hecuba
2006 Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse and Gielgud theatre
2008 Let There Be Love at the Tricycle theatre and Casualty 1907 for the BBC
2009 Time And The Conways at the National Theatre and Casualty 1909 for the BBC
2010 Onassis at the Novello theatre
How did you become interested in acting?
I’d always wanted to be an actor, ever since I was very little. I don’t know why. I let that go and was going to be lots of other things, then it was only at school, not so much through the drama, but through English classes and Shakespeare text and books and stories that I came back to it. I suppose Shakespeare at school; I was lucky enough to have a really good teacher and that brought it to life for me.
What was your first acting role?
The nativity. I was an excellent Herod.
Professionally, I was at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and did lots of things there and then I won the BBC Carlton Hobbs Award so I did some BBC Radio drama work which is a lovely way to start out because you work with lots of great people and you’re working all the time so you’re learning, rather than sitting around and waitressing.
Then my first television job was Midsomer Murders and my first play was the RSC in Hecuba. I went to America with it and did it in New York.
How do you feel about portraying Jackie Onassis?
I’m really enjoying it. When you get a job it’s so nice to have a focused area of reading and research. Obviously that period, the Kennedy period, is really fascinating and there’s plenty of it. It’s not like I’m playing someone really obscure. It’s been great reading all the biographies and finding out as much as one can. She’s so iconic in the true sense of the word, and very rarely seen talking in interviews, so she’s quite a mysterious figure, which is interesting to get to grips with.
I suppose I should feel more pressure, but that can be a bit debilitating at first if you focus too much on the icon, because ultimately she’s a human being just like any other. I was quite obsessed at the start, reading all the books, finding out as much as I could about her, then you just have to let that go and go back to the script, the human being on the stage and the story you’re telling otherwise it’s becomes a slightly two-dimensional impression.
How much did you know about Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis before you got involved with the show?
I knew who Jackie Kennedy was in terms of being the wife of JFK and being a clothes horse, and I knew that she later married Onassis, but I had a very, very vague idea of who he was. He is obviously the central character in this. He’s lived a fascinating life. You sort of think you know who Jackie Kennedy is, but actually when you scratch the surface you realise that that image, the perfect widow idea that we have of her, which is still actually maintained in the press, is false, or certainly not the full story. I think she’s much more interesting as a result of seeing all the different sides.
What can people expect from the show?
It’s funny, it’s fascinating, it’s illuminating and probably, perhaps shocking to some people’s ideas of Onassis and Jackie and the Kennedys.
How did you find performing in historical medical dramas Casualty 1907 & 1909?
They were meticulously researched. The sets they built were incredible. I thought it had fantastic casts and I was really disappointed that it didn’t get continued actually. I thought it was right up the BBC’s street. I was quite surprised because it trod that fine line of being authentically historical while obviously trying to make it interesting and human.
I loved it. It’s fun when you have to go off and be out of London and stay in a hotel with everyone.
It sounds like a holiday…
It is a bit. The whole of the acting profession is… [she laughs]
Did you learn anything on that job?
I learned a bit about the early nursing profession. When you don’t really know what you’re talking about and you just have to learn the lines, you just have to really concentrate for about 10 minutes and then those ridiculous long medical terms go straight out of your head again. I don’t know how they do it on the real Casualty and keep a straight face.
You have worked on stage, screen and radio. Do you have a preference?
No I don’t have a preference at all. With young naivety I always thought I’d love to do the best theatre and the best films, but, of course, that’s not really the industry so I ended up doing quite a lot of television, but all stuff that I’m proud of. Television’s so quick and there’s so many other fun elements to it, but you don’t get such good scripts and the time to really make much more three dimensional characters.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
It’s difficult to say. Connecting when an audience reacts in different ways, the camaraderie of working in a cast when they’re all together in the rehearsal room rather than out filming, and the rehearsal period when you unlock parts of the script or character that had previously been wrapped in confusion, those moments when you find answers.
And what is the worst thing?
The repetitiveness of being on stage, although you do discover new things. It can get repetitive sometimes, but then you’ll go to a place where you’ll find it really exciting. You keep it fresh. Every night is different and fresh. You have to keep it alive – things can be done differently every night – while also retaining all the work you’ve done in rehearsals. The danger lies in people who start changing things just to keep it fresh; its just change for the sake of change rather than positive change, and it can get a bit lost in the long run.
Also the wages… and the periods of unemployment.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a barrister, which is quite similar to acting; arguments and researching the human side of things.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
It’s better not to be bitter. [Actor] Karl Johnson once told me that. It was when I was doing one of my first TV jobs. I had a small part in Rome, the HBO series. I was 21 and full of happy hope. I think older actors must find that refreshing to look at and he said never forget that, always retain that, because it’s tricky later on in that business. He’s absolutely right, because you do meet people who are a bit jaded from it. Just remember that, keep enjoying it. It’s better not to be bitter.