London stage star Lia Williams is taking on a thrillingly difficult challenge: alternating the lead roles of Kate and Anna with Kristin Scott Thomas in Ian Rickson’s superb revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. The 48-year old actress is familiar to Broadway audiences for her work in Arcadia and Skylight (earning a 1997 Tony nod for the latter play, opposite Michael Gambon). These days, audiences can see her as either the sphinxlike Kate, married to a filmmaker played by Rufus Sewell, or Kate's best friend Anna. The luminous Williams chatted about her theatrical balancing act before a recent performance at the (yes) Harold Pinter Theatre.
This is an amazing thing that you and Kristin Scott Thomas are doing, swapping Pinter’s female roles across the entire run of Old Times.
It is, and what’s equally amazing is that it has all evolved completely organically, which is to say that we never rehearsed what we were doing as if they were two separate productions. We kind of floated between [the roles of] Anna and Kate four or five times in any given day, so that what emerged is completely organic to the two of us. We were encouraged to furrow our own path rather than do any copying, so what you see has come out of a gut visceral response to the writing.
Was the notion of alternating roles in place from the get-go?
Yes, and I accepted without hesitation, though if I had given it some thought, I might have said no [laughs]. I knew that it was a thrilling idea simply because the play is open to what we’re doing—it’s open to as many interpretations as there are members of the audience.
I assume that the two actresses doing this would have to share a deep rapport. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be a kind of one-upmanship?
I guess that was a risk at the very beginning, but I made a conscious decision to walk in with a very positive attitude on all fronts. It helped, of course, that I have admired Kristin’s work for a very long time. If it had been an actress I hadn’t taken to, or who didn’t offer something I felt I could work with, that would have been one thing, but having seen Kristin’s work on film, I felt we had a similar sensibility—that we would have a rapport. And we do!
Does it feel like two different plays when you and Kristin hand over the two female roles?
It feels like two variations on the same play. When you’re playing one character, you are very much immersed in that version, so there’s no disconnect. But it’s a weird process because although you are fully immersed in the role you are playing, you do nonetheless have this third eye, or set of antennae, that’s using the other interpretation as a springboard for your next round of that character, if you see what I mean. We are feeding off each other in a very, very open and generous way.
Yesterday was an odd event: the first of a once-a-week coin toss to determine which actress will play which part. Whose idea was that?
Ian’s [director Rickson], but we thought he was joking—that he couldn’t possibly be serious about it.
So, what was it like?
Rufus [Sewell] tossed the coin rather badly, and Ian had to teach him how to do it properly [laughs]. We were standing there watching, along with a huge crowd of people at the stage door and the Evening Standard [reporter]. Heads it was Kristin as Kate, and tails it was me playing Kate. It was tails, so I played Kate, which means that I run for the wig and the nail varnish remover. I had played Anna Wednesday night and now it’s back to Anna tonight.
Tell us about your personal association with Harold Pinter.
I first met Harold when he directed me and David Suchet in [the U.K. premiere of David Mamet’s] Oleanna. I remember turning up at his writing studio in Holland Park, where he lived, and him being utterly charming and very, very sensitive. I just quietly read, and he offered me the job on the spot. I had been reading his plays from the age of 17. I can’t say I understood them, but I sort of knew them in my bones. There’s something about the way Harold saw life and the world and humanity that I could totally relate to.
You got a Tony nomination in 1997 for your Broadway debut in Skylight opposite Michael Gambon, who starred in Old Times back in 1985. Has he been to see you in this?
The first person to come backstage on opening night was Michael, and it was the most glorious moment. He clearly loved it, and it took us straight back to doing Skylight. I remember meeting him for that play—there was this little huddled man in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and then he stood up to greet me and he just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And he extended this beautiful, long hand, which emerged out of the cloud of smoke. That was Michael.
At the time of that play, your son Josh was five, and now he is in his 20s and an actor, appearing in the Royal Court production of Polly Stenham’s play No Quarter.
Yes, though he’s called Joshua James, not Williams, since there was already a Joshua Williams in Equity. What’s been so exciting was for him to open one night in his play and me the next night in mine: I never imagined that would happen. It would be wonderful if there were a play we could do together at some point— The Seagull, perhaps?
In the meantime, you’re not exactly taking it easy once Old Times is over in April.
No! I’m directing a Frank McGuinness play, which we’re bringing to the Tricycle [in north London], and then I go to Dublin to play Blanche DuBois [in A Streetcar Named Desire], with Ethan McSweeny directing.
From Harold Pinter to Tennessee Williams: not bad!
He feels not unlike Pinter on many levels. Williams writes about abandonment and lost souls and aloneness in the same way that Pinter does, and his musicality and poetic riffs just take my breath away. He’s up there with the greats for me. And so, of course, is Pinter.