“I think she’s more superficial than malicious. She created her own set of truths’

Lia Williams, 59, is an exceptional actor with a searching intelligence and warmth, whose award-winning performances on stage and screen have a way of staying in the minds. Her 1993 interpretation of a student accusing her professor of harassment, in that of David Mamet Oleanna, was such a role. Now, thirty years later, she is about to play a professor Alma Mater in Kendall Feaver’s Almeida, a great new piece that returns to the subject of sexual misconduct.

It seems like you’ve always been drawn to political drama.
I worked with Harold Pinter, who directed Oleanna – and he always said about his own work that he was never consciously political, yet there was a political tension in everything he wrote. I’m starting to wonder now – I’ve been doing this work for forty years – whether there might be something similar in me. While I’m not overtly political—I’m an idealist and eclectic in my tastes—I continue to be drawn to new writing that discusses complex issues but also has heart.

You play the first female college master, Jo Mulligan – a disturbing mix of illuminated and unreconstructed. Has the topic of how we approach sexual misconduct changed?
Not much has changed, yet everything has changed. Oleanna was a polemic and charged. Alma Mater is not. It contains brilliantly clear arguments from several characters. Jo Mulligan is a second or third wave feminist who fought for equal rights against Nikki, a young student. Fourth wave feminism has moved online and exploded. But today we are challenged by groupthink. It’s cool to be a feminist, while in Jo’s day it was often seen as crazy. Jo wants to encourage her students to think about the things she has discovered, such as thinking outside the box and being responsible for your own actions.

When I direct, I have more control over what I do and who I am. When you act, you have to lose who you are

Being responsible – or failing to be – reminds me of how extraordinary you were Paula Vennells in the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs the post office – that cheerful professional smile of yours, a little masterpiece – have you studied Vennells closely?
I could not do it. Vennells, as we all know, was impossible to find: she simply disappeared. There was a shot of her riding a bicycle in a cemetery, but she was so protected by lawyers that ITV and the writer couldn’t get near her. The most interesting thing for me was that the writer wasn’t allowed to make up a single word for that specific role, so all I spoke was a transcription. We had to make the printed word sound like it came from my mouth, otherwise the lawyers would have filed a lawsuit.

What did you think of her testimony in the Horizon investigation? – and did you support the pressure on her to surrender her CBE?
I never like witch hunts, but she needs to be held accountable. It’s absolutely crucial. I chose not to portray her as evil because I felt it was important for the audience to make the decision. That’s how I approach my work in general. I played her with ambiguity and when you look at footage of her you can’t figure out where she is. During the hearing, her tears seemed to indicate that she was truly sorry, but being sorry is not the same as taking responsibility – and I don’t think she is emotionally capable of handling the depth of that responsibility. I think she’s more superficial than malicious. She created her own truths and believed in them. She was in way over her head. She was a business person through and through and may not have had the imagination to deal with this kind of horror.

Do you have experience with directing? in theater has changed your idea of ​​what it is to be an actor?
When you’re in a play, you are a certain color on the canvas. When you direct, you see the whole painting. I see myself as two different people. I am more raw and vulnerable as an actor. When I direct, I have more control over what I do and who I am. When you act, you have to lose who you are, lose your balance.

And speaking of the foundation, I read that your actor son, Joshua James, taught you rock climbing. How did that turn out?
Rock climbing is not my thing, we discovered.

Maybe not relaxing enough – what Doing do you do to relax?
I like diving. I spend a huge amount of time with Angus Wright, my partner. We met while doing the Oresteia here at the Almeida [he played Agamemnon to her Clytemnestra]. The Almeida is my favorite theater. We took the show to New York post-Covid, but I tore my Achilles tendon on the second day of tech [technical rehearsal]. An absolute disaster. It felt like a psychological amputation because the character was raging inside me… I spent 80 days on a couch while Angus had to continue with the show.

How is your heel doing now?
Fully recovered. I had surgery there.

Are you still a patron of Clean Break (sorry for the name in the context of your heel) and what can therapeutic theater mean in practice?
It gives women who have experienced the criminal justice system a safe space to express their stories. It is a huge catharsis for women who feel left out of society, increasing confidence and a sense of belonging. It is a wonderful organization. I am also a patron of Act [the Actors’ Children’s Trust]a charitable arm of British Actors’ Equity, which helps children of actors who are struggling financially.

Which playwright is closest to your heart?
Tennessee Williams. He’s a real poet, but I also love Mamet and Pinter. I am so lucky to have worked with writers who are masters of their art.

And that must be true, not least because it’s difficult for an actor to be that better then his lines?
I totally agree. You may be fooling yourself into thinking, I can add something to this, but you really can’t. If it doesn’t have legs, you can’t run.

You’re pushing towards 60 – how does that feel?
I don’t mind being old. For a woman it can be great. I think a lot of older women have so much beauty. I’ve never had to be completely visible, although I certainly don’t feel invisible now. I have not chosen to be bold in the spotlight and have enjoyed a career where I can step into a role on a stage and then just quietly disappear – that is my greatest pleasure.

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