‘I think she is more shallow than malicious. She created her own set of truths’

Lia Williams, 59 years old, is an exceptional actor whose intelligence and warmth question her and her winning performances on stage and screen are a way to remember. Her 1993 portrayal of a student who accused his professor of harassment, in David Mamet’s Oils, one such role. Now, 30 years later, she is about to play a professor, i Alma Mater at the Almeida with Kendall Feaver, a wonderful new play that returns to the topic of sexual misconduct.

It seems you’ve always been drawn to political drama.
I worked with Harold Pinter – who directed Oils – and he used to say, about his own work, that he was not consciously political but that there was a political pressure to everything he wrote. I’m wondering now – I’ve been doing this job for 40 years – if there’s something like me out there. While not overtly political – I’m idealistic and eclectic in my tastes – I’m always drawn to new writing that deals with complex issues but also has heart.

You play the headmaster of a college, Jo Mulligan – a thrilling mix of imaginative and unconstructive. Has the way we approach sexual misconduct changed?
Not much has changed, but everything has changed. Oils was polemic and loaded. Alma Mater was … not. There are very clear arguments from various characters. Jo Mulligan is a second or third wave feminist who fought for equal rights against Nikki, a young student. Fourth wave feminism has gone online and exploded. But groupthink challenges us today. It’s cool to be a feminist and, in Jo’s day, it was often seen as wacky. Jo wants to encourage her students to reflect on what she has discovered for herself, such as thinking outside the box and being responsible for your own actions.

When I direct, I have a stronger grip on what I’m doing as well as who I am. When you act you have to lose who you are

Being responsible – or not – reminds me of how extraordinary you were Paula Vennells in the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs post office – that professional smile from me is a little masterpiece – have you studied Vennells?
I was not able. Vennells, as we all know, was impossible to find: she just disappeared. That one shot was of her on a bike in a graveyard but she was so protected by lawyers that neither ITV nor the writer could get near her. The most interesting thing for me is that the writer was not allowed to invent a single word for that particular role so everything I spoke was a transcript. We had to make the printed word sound like it was coming from my mouth, otherwise the lawyers would have sued.

What did you think of her evidence on the Horizon inquiry? – and did you support the pressure on her to give up her CBE?
I never like a witch hunt but she has to be held accountable. It’s really important. I made the choice not to play her as evil because I thought it was important for the audience to make the decision. That’s how I approach my work in general. I played her with ambiguity and when you watch footage of her – you can’t work out where she is. During the hearing, her tears seemed to show that she was truly sad, but sad is not the same as taking responsibility – and my reading is that she is emotionally unable to handle the depth of that responsibility . I think she is more shallow than malicious. She created her own set of truths and believed them. She was way over her head. She was a corporate person through and through and maybe she didn’t have the imagination to deal with this kind of horror.

Do you have experience in directing in the theater changed your sense of what it means to be an actor?
When you act in a play, you have a certain color on the canvas. When you order, you see the whole painting. I see myself as two different people. I am more raw and vulnerable as an actor. When I direct, I have a stronger grip on what I’m doing and who I am. When you act you have to lose who you are, you lose your base.

And speaking of origin, I read that your son is an actor, Joshua James, you are teaching rock climbing. How was the pan out?
Rock climbing is not my thing, we discovered.

Not resting maybe – what do do you relax?
I love scuba diving. I spend a lot of time with Angus Wright, my partner. We met doing the Oristeia here at the Almeida [he played Agamemnon to her Clytemnestra]. My favorite theater is the Almeida. We took the show to New York after Covid but I tore my achilles on the second day of tech [technical rehearsal]. A total disaster. It felt like a psychic amputation because the character was raving about me… I spent 80 days on the couch and Angus had to continue the show.

How are your heels now?
Completely repaired. I had surgery over there.

Are you still a patron of Clean Break (sorry about the name in the context of your heels) and what can therapeutic theater do in practice?
It provides a safe space for women who have experienced the criminal justice system to share their stories. It’s a huge catharsis for women who feel on the outside of a society that fosters confidence and belonging – it’s a great organization. I am also a patron of Act [the Actors’ Children’s Trust]a charity branch of British Actors’ Equity, which helps support children of actors who are struggling financially.

Which playwright is closest to your heart?
Tennessee Williams. He is a real poet but I also love Mamet and Pinter. I’m lucky to have worked with writers who are masters of their art.

And that must be especially true because it’s hard to be an actor better than his lines?
I completely agree. You might mislead yourself: I can bring something to this, but really you can’t. If it doesn’t have legs, you can’t run.

You’re nudging 60 – how does that feel?
I don’t mind being old. For a woman, it can be great. I think many older women have so much beauty. I’ve never needed to be completely visible, but I certainly don’t feel invisible now. I didn’t choose to be bold in the sunlight and I love a career where I can step into a role on stage and quietly walk away afterwards – that’s my greatest satisfaction.

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