Interview: Alexis Zegerman

The waitress beckoned by Mike Leigh.


By John Nathan, October 30, 2008
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Alexis Zegerman: “Working with Mike Leigh was extraordinary”

Alexis Zegerman: “Working with Mike Leigh was extraordinary”

‘I thought I'd made the wrong decision", says Alexis Zegerman. The one-time waitress, estate agent and office worker is talking about a period in her life when it seemed that getting work as an actor was beyond reach.

Her mother, Adele, who left school when she was 15 and was determined that her children would get the best possible education even if she had to pay for it, had hoped that Alexis would choose something a little more secure.

"You could be a barrister. They act," her mother had said. But Zegerman was determined.

However, after university, where she got a first in English, and after two years working part time as a waitress and as an estate agent showing people around Hampstead flats she could never afford; and after turning to playwrighting as a desperate creative outlet; and after barely a fringe-theatre appearance since she had left drama school - after all this, she got a call from Mike Leigh.

"Suddenly things started to happen," says Zegerman, her wide smile still betraying some of the surprise she felt when in 2005 Leigh cast her in his Jewish National Theatre play, Two Thousand Years.

Zegerman played Tamara, the idealistic sister to the nouveau-religious Josh, played by Ben Caplan. Then came the even more high-profile role of dead-pan Zoe, best friend to Sally Hawkins's Poppy in Leigh's most recent movie Happy-Go-Lucky.

"Working at the National with actors like Adam Godley (currently in the West End show Rain Man) in a Mike Leigh play - it was all so mind blowing. And then working with Mike Leigh - ‘top film director' - on a film set was extraordinary. The very first time he gave the instruction (to the camera man) to ‘turn over', I actually thought he was talking to my stomach."

At 31 there is every chance that Zegerman will become a member of that exclusive club whose members are some of this country's greatest performers, such as Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent or Lesley Manville - the Mike Leigh regulars. But for the moment acting is to take a back seat to writing. Today performances begin of Lucky Seven, Zegerman's first full-length play which receives its premiere at North London's Hampstead Theatre. Not bad, considering she only started writing because she could not get work as an actor.

Zegerman honed this secondary, though it appears not lesser, talent on the Royal Court's young writers' programme. It led to her work being performed on Radio 4, which has just commissioned Zegerman to write a comedy series called Mum's On the Run.

"I just want people to laugh," says Zegerman, though when she says it she is talking about her stage play.

Lucky Seven is based on the famous TV documentary Seven Up, which every seven years has followed the lives of its subjects ever since they were children. In Zegerman's stage version, directed by Anthony Clark, her three protagonists are upper-class Catherine (Susannah Harker), middle-class Tom (Jonny Weir) and working-class Alan (David Kennedy), a Jewish East Ender who sells ladies' knickers for a living.

"It's not a play about reality TV," says the 31-year-old North Londoner.

"It's more about our interest in these three characters and whether they manage to break the shackles. I mean, Alan is a working-class Jew from the East End, so I hope there will be people in the audience who recognise things about him. Certainly he's drawn from my family background. My mum's family came from the East End, some of them moved to Essex, some to North London. I think most of all it's a play about hope and disappointment and aspirations and whether we fulfil them."

It is the day before rehearsals, and Zegerman has just returned from Germany, where she filmed her second movie. Storm is about a modern war-crimes trial in The Hague and Zegerman has been cast alongside Kerry Fox and Stephen Dillane.

"I play a really bitchy press secretary," says Zegerman, delighting in the contrast between her latest role and the few others she has played in a short but stunning career.

"I don't think one day goes by when I don't think, ‘This is wonderful'. I feel lucky. I really do."

    Last updated: 10:46am, October 30 2008