Interview: Zoë Wanamaker

The star of stage, screen and sitcom talks about her ‘immigrant’ past and wishes she had had a Jewish education


Zoë Wanamaker says she grew up feeling like an alien in Britain

Zoë Wanamaker says she grew up feeling like an alien in Britain

Many Jews tell stories, passed down by their grandparents or great grandparents, of how persecution forced them to flee their homes in Europe to travel in hope to the New World.

For Zoë Wanamaker it happened in reverse. Her family were forced to flee the New World for the Old. Her father, director and actor Sam Wanamaker, was a victim not of antisemitism but of the McCarthyite witchhunts in America in the early 1950s, when those suspected of having links with Communism were blacklisted.

Sitting in the quintessentially English garden of her London home, sipping Fortnum and Mason coffee, it is hard to imagine how Wanamaker, one of Britain’s most successful actresses, could feel like an outsider. But she does — not for her Jewishness so much, but rather because, despite her very British accent, she grew up feeling American. “I felt like an alien here. My parents said that the British were barbarians because the central heating was so pathetic and because the shower peed water rather than showered it,” she laughs.

Earlier this year, Wanamaker had the opportunity, courtesy of the BBC’s genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are?, to step back into her family’s past, travelling to Ukraine and to the United States in search of her Jewish and her American roots. “I found out that my great-grandmother actually died only two weeks after arriving in America. The physical journey from Ukraine to Antwerp and then the conditions on the boat were something you just can’t imagine.”

She reflects on her own journey in the other direction. “I’m an immigrant — my family are immigrants to this country. It makes you realise that Britain is now a country full of immigrants.” She adds that the film she has just finished making, a British movie called It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, features only two or three white actors. “It was great — we might as well embrace our multiculturalism, because America has.”

Wanamaker’s parents found refuge in this country. The family thrived but her father was never totally free of guilt — he confided this to his daughter when she was playing in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible — an allegory of the McCarthy trials — at the National Theatre in the 1990s. “During the rehearsal, dad told me he felt guilt that, maybe, he had run away when he should have stayed and fought. But he had a wife and two children and needed to look after them. To see his FBI file on Who Do You Think You Are? was eye-opening. What I realised was that being outspoken runs in the family — my younger sister, Jessica, was a Trotskyite at university. It must be in the genes. She can be just as bolshie now,” Wanamaker laughs.

She wishes she had had more of a Jewish education. She and her sisters Abby and Jessica, were brought up, to use Jonathan Miller’s definition, “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish. “My mum and dad kicked against religion as being something which brought about wars and horror, so we never had any religion. I think the three of us sort of regret it because it’s a tradition, and if you want to kick against something you should know about it. My mother was brought up with it and my dad certainly was, though whether they had a definite Friday night and went to shul, I don’t know.”

Wanamaker adds with a chuckle: “I went to the cemetery where my mother was buried — she would have been horrified to have been with so many Jews. My mother never wanted to go to Israel because there were too many Jews there. She didn’t want to go to Golders Green because there were too many Jews there, too.”

While she does not share her mother’s embarrassment of her Jewishness, Wanamaker does feel she has inherited some maternal traits, particularly her shyness, which threatened to become an obstacle to her acting career. “My dad told me to liven up a bit. He said I would never be discovered if I was hiding behind the radiator. A lot of shy people become actors so they can hide behind their characters. It’s perfectly legitimate and understandable.”

Wanamaker has hidden behind many characters in her time in a career which has spanned theatre, film and television, and won her Olivier awards and a CBE in 2000. She is now 60 — hard to believe given her fresh-faced appearance and an ebullience undimmed by an ankle operation which has left her hobbling around the house. So what is her favourite medium?

“I always prefer the thing that I’m not doing at that time. The rhythm of film is very different to theatre or TV sitcom. Film for me is such an inorganic medium. You really have to work on your own to some extent then hit the ground running. You also have to get up early, and I’m not a morning person, that’s for sure.”

She admits that she never expected to do a sitcom, yet she has now chalked up 10 years in the BBC prime-time hit My Family, which she acknowledges is a very old-fashioned kind of a show. “I think people just like to sit down and put on the TV and not be challenged or upset — it’s just an enjoyable half hour of silliness.”

Sitting in her garden smoking roll-ups and sipping coffee, Wanamaker radiates contentment. She married late, but has had many happy years with her husband, Gawn Grainger, her two step-children and two ageing tortoises. Does she has any regrets? Wanamaker has to think hard.

“Do I wish I’d done anything differently? Yes, but I’m not going to tell you. As far as acting parts are concerned there is something I would like to have done and which I didn’t do, but that was to do with circumstances. I would have loved to have pursued my education, to have learned Latin, French and to have had more of a Jewish education. But I’m 60 now. It’s time to deal with it. More than half my life is over so I might as well enjoy it. I try not to think of what I should do, but rather what I want to do.”

Snapshot

BORN:
May 13, 1949, New York

FAMILY:
Father was actor and director Sam Wanamaker, who inspired the building of the Globe Theatre in London. Mother, Canada-born actress Charlotte Holland. Two sisters, Abby and Jessica.

EARLY LIFE:
Moved to Britain aged three, where she was educated at King Alfred School in Hampstead and Sidcot School in Somerset. Trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

CAREER:
Highlights include role of Madame Hooch in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the TV series Love Hurts; the plays Electra and Once in a Lifetime, for which she won Olivier awards; and the BBC comedy My Family, for which she has won a Rose d’Or. She was awarded the CBE in 2000

The actress talks about Jewishness, and her father, at An Evening with Zoë Wanamaker, Wednesday July 1, at Hampstead Town Hall, London NW3, organised by Independent Jewish Voices. Book at ann@barnowlbooks.com

    Last updated: 12:52pm, June 25 2009