As she returns to the theatre after a period in which she was rarely off British television screens, Enlightenment’s Julie Graham talks to Matthew Amer about fear, children and her granny’s sayings.
The Bill, Survivors, Bonekickers, William And Mary, Between The Sheets; actress Julie Graham has starred in all these TV dramas and more in the past seven years, in which time she has not set foot on a stage. It was a self-induced exile brought about by motherhood. Now her two little girls are older, she is eagerly heading back to live performance, starring in thriller Enlightenment at the Hampstead theatre. “It’s absolutely terrifying,” she says.
It is a week before the first preview of this revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s drama when I meet Graham in a dressing room that, with its slatted, unwelcoming bed and the unfriendly bars of a towel rail, puts one in mind of a cell. “Once us girls get in here there’ll be flowers and fairy lights everywhere,” Graham laughs while tucking into her noodle lunch with chopsticks. It is a brave choice of meal to eat during an interview. There can be no coy nibbling of sandwich corners or demure picking at salad leaves, only shovelling of long, untrained clumps of noodle with its unpredictable sauce.
But Graham is not interested in packaging herself for the press in any way or presenting a version of herself; what you see is what you get, and what you get is an actress and woman unafraid to speak her mind, tell the truth and get noodle juice over her chin in the middle of an interview.
“I can still eat without getting a knot in my stomach,” she says, as we talk about the nerves being jangled by her return to the stage after the best part of a decade away. “But I got a crossword clue yesterday on the way home on the train, the answer was ‘preview’ and it actually made me feel sick. But you should always do things that frighten you in life; it’s not war, it’s not going down a mine…”
Enlightenment is, though, a harrowing tale of a couple whose 20-year-old son goes missing on a backpacking holiday through South East Asia. His parents – Graham plays Mum, Lia – are left clutching at any straw they can in their attempts to find him, until they receive a life-changing phone call.
“You go in and half the tools you can’t use any more because they’re past their sell by date. I’m relearning, like baby steps”
“It was gripping, right from the beginning,” Graham says of her first contact with the play. “Fantastic subject, really cleverly written, intelligent play. It doesn’t treat the audience like idiots as so many modern plays do.”
While Graham’s children have kept her from the stage for the last seven years – the thought of dragging them away from home for tours or regional work did not sit well with the actress – her role as a mother has strongly fed into her theatrical come back.
“There is definitely something about being a mother or being a parent that only parents can understand,” she explains, between mouthfuls of noodle. “You can’t imagine it until it happens to you and, of course, that’s your job as an actor. There’s hundreds of brilliant female actors who don’t have children who would be able to play this part brilliantly, there’s no doubt about it, but for me, personally, I can bring more to the role now that I’m a mother and I understand more. Even though my children are very little and her son’s grown up, it’s the same thing; they’re always your babies, they’re always your children.”
Graham took the morning off recently, so that she could take her youngest daughter to her first day of school. The trauma of that day alone sounds like solid research for Enlightenment: “She was fine; I was in bits. She skipped off; I was left howling at the school gates like a mad woman: ‘They’re stealing our babies!’”
As the daughter of Scottish performer Betty Gillin, a passion for the stage runs in Graham’s blood, yet it was not her mother’s life that tempted her into the profession. “Being brought up by a professional actor,” she says, “you see both sides of the business, so you have no illusions that it is glamorous or that it’s an easy option or that it’s secure. You come at it from a very realistic position, so if you decide to do it, you really want to do it.”
That decision was made as a teenager after seeing a performance of Mary Stuart at Glasgow’s Citizens theatre starring Ann Mitchell. As Graham describes the scene in which Mary Queen Of Scots and Elizabeth I meet on a moor, leaves swirling around them, the hairs on the back of her neck start to tingle as the same passion that first convinced her to take to the stage is evoked decades later.
It is this passion that makes her so excited – if not a touch terrified – to be returning. The extra pressure created by the fact that Enlightenment is the first production to be directed by Edward Hall since he took over as Artistic Director of Hampstead theatre isn’t helping settle the nerves, especially as Graham has now grown fond of the director she describes as “extremely bright, nurturing, encouraging, patient… really patient, especially with me.”
The caveat tagged on to the end of that description is symptomatic of her nerves about her stage return. After having spent so long working on screen, she says, “You’ve got a whole side of your acting skills that are definitely rusty and rough, so you’ve got to dust them down and drag them out of there again like an old tool kit. You go in and half the tools you can’t use any more because they’re past their sell by date. I’m relearning, like baby steps. Hopefully I’ll be walking by opening night. I’m kind of toddling at the minute, holding onto things…”
“If it fails, it’ll be all my fault,” she laughs, a touch nervously and with the definite sense that she does not want to let down Hall, Stephenson or the rest of the cast.
“When you’re younger you’re much more idealistic. It’s stood me in good stead over the years, because I have turned down a lot of things that I didn’t think were very good”
As for her screen work, Graham confirms that Survivors, the BBC series in which she played a woman searching for her son in a post-Apocalyptic world, will not be returning for a third series. Neither, I suspect, will Bonekickers, the archaeology drama that was buried by the critics. While she is disappointed about Survivors – “there was still more to discover and more of a journey for those characters” – she is stoical about the business.
“I’ve never ever, in anything I’ve ever done, expected it to be picked up. I think if you have those expectations then you’re on a hiding to nothing. You should take every job at face value and think ‘this is the job I’m doing now’, not think about it going to four, five, six series and being hugely successful. You’ve just got to go with the flow.”
This stoicism, I think, has probably increased in recent years, with age and the growth of her young family. The idealism and impetuosity of youth has given way to a more practical view of the world.
“I loved the gypsy lifestyle and the not really knowing [where the next job would come from], but when you’ve got responsibilities and you’ve got children and you’ve got a mortgage, you do get more twitchy about things,” she says. “You always have to do jobs that you don’t want to do. I call them my tax bill jobs. When you’re younger you’re much more idealistic. It’s stood me in good stead over the years, because I have turned down a lot of things that I didn’t think were very good. I think that’s built me a little bit of a career.” But when you are older, she adds, “everything you do you’ve got to do it with good grace and you’ve got to treat it as though it was the best job in the world, because [otherwise] you’ll just make yourself unhappy and you’ll just be a bitch to everyone. As my granny always said, ‘honey catches more flies than vinegar.’ She also said ‘never eat anything bigger than your head.’ Those were her two pieces of advice. The first one, I’ve always heeded.”
With that, Graham tucks back into the large bowl of noodles – the exact size of which, in relation to her head, is unclear – happy, terrified, comfortable and definitely not in a tax bill job.