Helena was interviewed as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s The First Actresses exhibition, where a number of actresses including Emma Thompson and Helena herself have spoken about why they became actresses in the first place, and the people who inspire them and the challenges they face. I found this a very interesting and insightful short interview, and quite inspirational! Helena is a very thoughtful, intelligent woman and I’m sure you’ll all agree that she makes an important point about how views have changed, in particular attitudes towards women and their appearance.
When did you decide that you would like to become an actress?
I remember wanting to become an actress since about five years old. I blame a lot of it on an actress friend called Lisa Harrow who swept into our lives about then. She seemed impossibly glamorous and beautiful and both my brothers and father had massive crushes on her. I remember thinking whatever she is doing she has got it right. I still wonder today if Lisa had been a plumber, my life would have taken a different turn. Later on, when I was thirteen my father became dreadfully ill and it was then that I looked up theatrical agents in the yellow pages and phoned one up and got on her books. It might have been a curious reaction to have when your father was critically ill in intensive care, but looking back with the long, birdseye view that time can give, I can see it made perfect sense: I did it in attempt to escape and create my own reality, which is what acting can be – a loss of yourself into somebody else. A holiday from myself. What I can’t get over is that I have been paid very good money taking all these holidays.
Do any of the ‘First Actresses’, Nell Gwyn, Sarah Siddons, Dorothy Jordan – particularly interest or intrigue you?
Nell Gwyn in particular and Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress always held a romance for me, without knowing much about them. My daughter is called Nell not exactly after either but it consolidated the choice and one day I will give her an orange. I have a hopeless nostalgia for times gone by and am fascinated by lives lived in the past but I see probably a lot more romance where I fear there must have been a lot of discomfort, illness, fragility of life, and boredom .However even though they didn’t have a vote, I think women were allowed their curves and their flesh then.
The status of the actress has changed dramatically since the days of the First Actresses, when it was often seen as a disreputable occupation and not a profession. Are there still obstacles or difficulties to overcome in the career of an actress now?
In all honesty I have spent most of my life thinking it still a disreputable reputation in the sense that it isn’t a very responsible or grown up way to make a living. But equally we do serve a use: I think we help make people feel, or laugh, surrender themselves emotionally where they can’t necessarily in the full flow of daily life. We are in the business of telling stories and we need them to make sense of the chaos of the world, to help us to survive it, it helps us understand ourselves and others. I act partially to escape myself but also because I love people and am fascinated by them: I want to work out how did that person end up being like this? What journey did they take?
As for the actress living today, I would say there are innumerable challenges, obstacles, difficulties. The most obvious is consistent employment, and the challenge of making a living through acting. Only a ridiculously small and unfair percentage of the profession- like 5 percent- is employed at any one time. It is a ridiculously tough and oversubscribed profession and a reliably unreliable way of earning a living. As a woman you have to remain castable over the generations: a great career as ingenue is no guarantee that you will be employable as a character actor in later years. If you are lucky enough to have work come your way then you have the happy luxury but sometimes tricky task to decide whether to do a job or not. Many careers have dwindled or soared on quality of decision making. Oh and luck.
But the most salient difference between now and then is how the profession has been transfigured by the media and fashion world. Two years ago I am sure the average Joe Bloggs would have no idea what Nell Gwyn actually looked like and she would be able to go about her daily life unrecognized. So I am sure that actors had a greater privacy and had to put up with less if not any personal tabloid comment. The profession has also been hijacked by the fashion industry: the stress on what one looks like and wears is extreme; an award ceremony is more about what dress you are wearing than the film you are in. We have become billboards. At a recent discussion with some very well known and successful actresses they were asked if their experience of the profession had held any surprises and they all said that they had not originally signed up to being fashion models.
Equally these days the beauty ideal of thinness and youth put pressures that Nell would not have encountered. Paintings suggest that they celebrated the curve, and womanly flesh. As for aging , I guess they died too early for it to become a real concern or at least I would like to think they were more concerned about other more pressing things like survival than if they they looked old. Also they didn’t have glasses so I suspect everyone looked fuzzy and soft anyway. I fear we have become right old narcissists with the extra decades of time that scientific development has given us.
So yes there are obstacles and difficulties. I think that you have to be a curious blend of mimophant- have the sensitivity of a mimosa so you can be vulnerable when acting, and the hide of the elephant to cope with the rejection and critics. But having said that if you are lucky enough to be in work, it is the most fantastic job in the world. And I count my galaxy of lucky stars every time I am employed.