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Olivier Winner Clare Higgins on Thinking Like an American in London's Other Desert Cities

Olivier Winner Clare Higgins on Thinking Like an American in London's Other Desert Cities
Clare Higgins in ‘Other Desert Cities’
'I always say that if you want to play an American, you have to think American.'

Clare Higgins needs no introduction as one of Britain’s finest actresses, having won three Olivier Awards, as well as a 2003 Tony nod for her Broadway debut in Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton. No stranger to playing an American, the Yorkshire-born performer is currently taking on the role of Silda Grauman in the Old Vic Theatre premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s highly charged family drama Other Desert Cities—she inherits the role of the caustic sibling from Judith Light, who won a 2012 Tony Award for her portrayal. spoke to Higgins during previews about returning to the stage after several years away, discovering her inner American, and the mystery of rellenos.

Welcome back to the London theater!
Thank you. I’ve been away doing telly and film, including four months shooting in Vancouver. I prefer acting on stage but on the other hand, one has to earn money; I’m quite happy, really, to do either!

And here you are in a contemporary American drama—had you heard of the play beforehand?
No, I didn’t know the writer [Jon Robin Baitz], and I didn’t know the play—nothing at all. I had an email from my agent sending on the script and asking me if I could start in three weeks! It’s been very quick, all of this, but when I read it, I thought, “What a great play and what a great part.”

In the play, Brooke (Martha Plimpton) returns to her parents’ Palm Springs home to present a memoir she has written about them: did the material have any resonance?
I certainly didn’t know anything about Palm Springs and had never met anyone who’s been there. I thought it was in Florida! [Laughs.] But in truth, this play really could be set anywhere. After all, it takes place indoors and you don’t actually see the desert, so in a funny way it could just as well be Hampstead.

I suppose families are families the world over, at least to some extent.
Very much so. Psychologically, what [Baitz] is writing about is not that different from what many families experience. There’s a secret in most families or an outsider or a black sheep—someone, in other words, very much like Silda.

Were there any other specifics in the play that you found puzzling?
We don’t know who Pat Buckley is in Britain [the reference has since been dropped for London audiences] and I had no idea what [the Mexican dish] rellenos were [laughs]. But otherwise, the play deals in recognizable family and political archetypes; it seems to me quite in the tradition of Miller and O’Neill and people who write about families at war.

Other Desert Cities furthers your affinity for American work: I remember seeing you in A Streetcar Named Desire when I first moved to London.
When I played Stella in Streetcar, I was told that being American isn’t just about the accent, it’s a matter of attitude, and I’ve never forgotten that. I always say that if you want to play an American, you have to think American, and that’s possibly why quite a lot of English actors have problems. They remain English in attitude and think all they have to do is Americanize their accents.

And you often end up appearing alongside a visiting American, like Martha Plimpton.
What’s great there is that because they’ve all been in American plays, these actors are able to open us up to their tradition. Having Martha with us has been fantastic because inevitably she knows a lot more about this play and where it comes from than we ever could.

After Other Desert Cities, you start rehearsals for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Tim Pigott-Smith, opening this summer in Bath.
I’m so looking forward to that. [Martha] is such an astonishing part, and I worked with Tim at the Donmar in Hecuba, so it will be nice to be back with him again. I did the play in Bristol over a decade ago but only for a week because Gerard Murphy broke his ankle, and that was that. I don’t really remember it, to be honest, so it will be wonderful to get to explore it all again.

In Virginia Woolf, you’ll get to knock back all the booze that you’re not allowed as Silda, who is on the wagon when Desert Cities begins!
I surely can and I will [laughs]! The thing with Silda is that she’s sober as a judge while everybody else drinks like fish, whereas Martha joins right in.

I remember talking to you previously about your entirely separate training as a psychotherapist. How do you juggle that with acting?
The fact is, at the moment I don’t. I never really practiced after I qualified because you can’t ask people not to see you because you have a wardrobe fitting or some such. You can’t do psychotherapy as a part-time job, so I’ve decided that I shall only ever practice at such time as I stop acting. When I decide to give up acting—or it gives me up—then I am quite happy to do the other.

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