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Q&A: Lia Williams

Published 28 January 2013

The enormity of performing a role in a West End play is a something that never fails to impress. So when it was announced that Lia Williams would be learning and performing not just one, but two roles to be swapped on a daily basis with her Old Times co-star Kristin Scott Thomas – who plays who will even be decided by the flip of a coin at one performance a week – the chance to pick her brains was something not to be missed.

Here the award-winning actress tells Official London Theatre the challenges of role swapping, her experience of being directed by the play’s late author Harold Pinter and what inspires her.

What drew you to this production of Old Times?

The electrifying mix of Harold Pinter, Ian Rickson, Rufus Sewell and Kristin Scott Thomas.

How much harder has it been learning two roles?
Learning is not a problem; switching characters is mind-bending!

How will you decide who performs each night?
It is rumoured that we may toss a coin and then I guess we rush for the right wig. [It has since been confirmed they will toss a coin once a week and for all other performances there is a schedule online.]

Have you and Kristin Scott Thomas inspired each other’s portrayals of the characters?
Totally, yes. We springboard off each other.  It’s thrilling.

What is the finest performance you have seen?

Can I have three?

Fonteyn and Nureyev dancing Romeo And Juliet at Covent Garden. Their chemistry as young lovers and the depth of their onstage passion inspired me to act.

Michael Gambon and David Bradley in Rupert Goold’s production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land. Harold had just died and the wound of his death brought an incredible heartrending depth and raw truth to their performances when I saw it.

Lindsay Duncan in the rehearsal room with Harold Pinter directing. The play was The Room, Harold’s first play. She delivered one line with such a delicacy and depth that it took my breath away and broke my heart.

What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
I walk in Hampstead Heath thinking about the next thing.

If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
I wouldn’t cast myself, but I would like to direct the next great new play.

Who or what has inspired you? 
Great writing inspires me – in any form. It helps our struggle with mortality and helps us see that we are not alone.

Do you have any regrets?
No. I refuse to have regrets.

What do you consider your big break and why?
Alan Ayckbourn and his play The Revengers’ Comedies. He catapulted me into the West End and I have been fortunate to work with the best theatre writers ever since. 

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
Yes. I left my son with an assortment of nannies to go off to strange places for work, but he often came along. He spent six months rollerblading around New York when I was doing Skylight on Broadway.

What book, film or album do you find yourself constantly recommending to friends?
The book, Beloved by Toni Morrison; I have never been hurled into a world so vivid and visceral so fast. The film, Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed and with James Mason and Robert Newton. It’s referred to in Old Times. Strange, disquieting, totally original.

Who could you not be without?
My husband and the fantastic screenwriter, Guy Hibbert; my greatest best friend and love of my life. He is the kindest man I have ever met, and true and fierce in his moral, social and political beliefs in a just society.

And my son, Joshua James, a terrific young actor now appearing at the Royal Court theatre in No Quarter. He is my inspiration and strength; his courage and big-heartedness is quite something to witness as his mother.

Where do you head after a performance?
Madame Bertaux in Greek Street if I need hot chocolate, The Ivy Club if I need something stronger. Gabby’s in St Martin’s Lane for some chick peas.

If you had to do another play swapping roles, which production would you choose and who which actor would you swap roles alongside?
The swap in Old Times helps to reveal the play – that is perhaps unique. I cannot think how you can do the same with another play without it seeming to be just a gimmick.

What was it like working with Harold Pinter? Does it bring an added understanding to this play?
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. He was a man with a deep sensitivity and kindness. He didn’t, however, like extraneous noise of any kind from people or things. He once asked Stephen Daldry to stop the Circle Line in a preview of Oleanna at the Royal Court theatre! And, yes, I could hear Harold’s voice all the way through the rehearsal and I can feel him in the auditorium of the Harold Pinter Theatre.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
Tree conservationist.

How would you like to be remembered?
I have no interest in being remembered at all.

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