Actors Talk about Acting

first published 1961, eds. John E. Boothe & Lewis Funke


Vivien Leigh has not yet returned from a Long Island sojourn at the home of friends when we arrived at the New York apartment she had rented for the Broadway run of Jean Giradoux' 'Duel of Angels'. She had recently closed in New York and was about to take it on tour. Her housekeeper told us Miss Leigh would be back soon, and asked if we wouldn't have a drink while waiting. We found that we were once again in the livivng room of what we now decided was New York's most distinguished theatrical rooming house-Edith Meiser's duplex garden apartment in which we had interveiwed Sir John Gielgud some months earlier. The room was much the same, although Sir John's phonograph had given way to a small old-type movie set. After a quarter of an hour, a young man, Miss Leigh's secretary, pleasantly assured us that Miss Leigh would surely srrive, accompanied by John Merivale, a young and handsomely bearded and a fellow player in 'Duel of Angels'. He had driven her in from Long Island. Their entrance was in striking contrast to their stage entrances. A Carribbean extravaganza was a bit more in key with this entrance than that of the stately mood of nineteenth-century Aix of 'Duel'. Miss Leigh, with that beguiling smile that has devastated scores of stalwart heroes since and before Rhett Butler, came quickly into the room, full of apologies, and cast on a chair a straw beach hat fancifully decorated with imitation fruits. She wore a gay multicolored silk blouse, beige shantung slacks, canvas beach shoes; her hair was neatly held beneath a chartreuse chiffon scarf tied under her chin. Many bracelets and bangles were on her wrists. About Miss Leigh one could easily use that word one can only use on the rarest of occasions- delicious. Mr Merivale sustained the Caribbean effect, with red slacks, a blue sports shirt- and that luxuriant beard. There were aperitifs all around, preceded for Miss Leigh by a kiss for Poo-Jones, her Siamese cat. A move was made to get down to our interview, but not before her secretary called her out of the room on some bit of business, nor until various telephone calls were attended to, and Miss Leigh didwant the secretary to get some of those "divine" lilies she loved so. The interview appeared to get under way, but Miss Leigh did have a question on just what it was all about-its purpose, originally explained to her agent, had obviously gotten scattered a bit in Miss Leigh's swirling life. And with explanation, that devastating smile was on- but with just the slightest flicker of reproach, perhaps for broaching a somewhat serious subject on such a nice day. A few opening questions, and then Mr Merivale took his leave. After getting into the interview, Miss Leigh talked with some interest, sometimes with a quiet animation, emphasizing her point with the flat of her palm brought down on her crossed leg. Throughout, the Leigh glamour never let down. Nearly all charm, there nevertheless was a hint that here could be a moody glamour. The interview recessed for lunch. Arriving for the occasion was Robert Helpmann, actor, dancer, choreographer and director of 'Duel'. During lunch the conversation turned on directing Shakespeare; Katharine Hepburn playing Shakespeare at Stratford, Conneticut; future plans of Miss Leigh's. And Miss Leigh discussed some of the people she knew and admired, Bernard Berenson, for instance. "... the most elegant man I ever knew. I loved him.I think women do, men don't. My husband didn't." (At the Time of the interview Miss Leigh was still married to Laurence Olivier.) Before the lunch was over, there were arrangements to be made for the evening. Would Mr Helpman join Miss Leigh and Mr Merivale for dinner, the new Hitchcock film, Psycho, and dancing afterward-"I adore dancing," Miss Leigh added. And the secretary MUST get those divine lilies. And the car should come for her at six. And back to the interview. But not for long. Miss Leigh's is a busy house.

INTERVIEWER According to one article I read, you went into the theatre as a reaction against your parents, who had sent you off to school. Is that really true?
LEIGH Oh, no! I doubt it.
INTERVIEWER This was not a sort of rebellion?
LEIGH No, it's not true.
INTERVIEWER I don't quite believe it either. Well then, what lured you into the theatre?
LEIGH I haven't the vaguest notion. I was seven when Maureen O'Sullivan said, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" and I said , "I'm going to be an actress." I don't know why. I like dressing up, I think.
INTERVIEWER As simple as that?
LEIGH Absolutely.
INTERVIEWER At what age did you start acting? What was the first role you ever remember having?
LEIGH Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream at my convent school at Roehampton. By the way, my parents were absolutely delighted that I knew what I wanted to do.
INTERVIEWER Well I think they would be.
LEIGH And they were very pleased and they encouraged me all the way through. I had special dancing- ballet lessons-from the age seven to thirteen. I was educated all over the place, in England, France, Germany and Italy.
INTERVIEWER You were born in India?
LEIGH Born in India. Came back to England when I was five, went straight to convent school- I was the youngest child there, and so I imagine I was rather spoiled. I remember I was allowed to take cats to bed with me. I've always been mad about cats.
INTERVIEWER When you decided to go into the theatre as an actress, what training did you seek out?
LEIGH When I was at school at Paris, I had special lessons from Mademoiselle Antoine, who was an actress at the Comedie Francaise, and I was taken to every sort of play - which the other girls weren't allowed to go to--and so I felt very grand.
INTERVIEWER How does French training differ- what special qualities has it?
LEIGH I think it helps enormously in diction mostly. You know, English people don't pronounce, don't have very good diction on the whole, I don't think. And I think learning other languages...In France you have to pronounce very particularly and clearly, and I think that learning French at an early age helped me enormously. I think any classical training in the theatre is of enormous value.
LEIGH Just- well , because I think that classical plays require more imagination and more general training to be able to do. That's why I like playing Shakespeare better than anything else; because I think he wrote the greatest plays for people, and I think they require more to be brought to them. And I think one learns more through acting in classical plays than one does through anything else.
INTERVIEWER But there are some Method players...
LEIGH I don't understand. I don't know what that Method is. I've read Stanislavsky, naturally, and it seems to me that the Method is: if you say something, you've got to say it as interestingly as possible. But that applies to life--and acting is life, to me, and should be.
INTERVIEWER It also applies, if I'm not mistaken, in the Method school here. That's Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio.
LEIGH I don't know anything about that. It's based on Stanislavsky, surely. But I don't understand.They never seem to do any comedies at Lee Strasberg's school, whereas comedy is much more difficult than tragedy-- and a much better training, I think.
INTERVIEWER Why do you find comedy is much more difficult?
LEIGH Because timing in comedy is...
LEIGH It's much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh.
INTERVIEWER Why do you think that is so?
LEIGH I really don't know. I simply don't know why it should be more difficult, but it is.
INTERVIEWER Well, now, we digressed for a moment. I wanted to get back to the schools you attended.
LEIGH I went to a convent school outside London, and I went to a day school in Biarritz. Then I went to a convent in Italy for a year; then I went to a finishing school in Paris for six months; then I went to a school in Germany, and I meant to be there six months and I stayed eighteen.
INTERVIEWER What did you do about schools for your drama inclinations?
LEIGH In Paris, as I said, I studied with Madamoiselle Antoine, and then when I came back to England I went straight to the Academy of Dramatic Arts.
INTERVIEWER How long did you stay at the Academy? Did you complete the course?
LEIGH No, no. I was in it only six months. Then I got married, and I went back after I was married and stayed there until I was going to have my child. But I just took the French course after that, because I liked particularly working with a wonderful teacher called Mademoiselle Gracet- Alice Gracet was her name- and I did something in French and was abominable, absolutely shocking. And in fact, all my reports from the academy were very bad. I did a play called Caeser's Wife, by Somerset Mauham, and I remember the report saying, "Why are you so bad? Is it because you have too much sense of humour?" Well I don't know what the reason was, but I was very shocked. I expect I didn't concentrate. But I loved my time there, particularly the fencing and dancing and elocution. I had two plays in French. One, Shaw's Saint Joan--and I remember that there was only one suit of armour, chain mail, which had been worn by Sybil Thorndike, who was a good deal bigger than I am, so I has to stuff the toes with tissue paper. Well, I had--we all had to do various scenes. I had two scenes, the river scene and the cathedral scene. So the cathedral scene starts off kneeling down, and when I got up, my toes were standing straight up there, you know. You can imagine what kind of performance that was. Awful.
INTERVIWER There's a story that says you exacted a promise from your first husband that you would be permitted to continue your career in the theatre.
LEIGH Oh, I don't think I was as severe as that. And, anyway, he was perfectly delighted that I should go on with it.
INTERVIEWER what do you find--
LEIGH He was a very good critic and very helpful to me in every possible sort of way.
INTERVIEWER What is it you found so satisfying in the theatre?
LEIGH I think just making people laugh, and making them understand things. I like that.
INTERVIEWER Can you give me an example?
LEIGH No, I don't think I can. The playwright does the initial work, after all, and one is just an interpreter of what the playwright thinks, and therefore the greater the playwright, the more satisfying it is to act in the plays. For instance, Thornton Wilder- I loved playing Skin of Our Teeth. And anything in Shakespeare. And the play I'm doing at the present, Duel of Angels, I love because I think Giradoux was a marvelous playwright. I think it's a fascinating play. Full of ideas. Full of truth. I think the audiences here have been quite extraordinary, but they're shocked by it, to begin with. They're far more shocked in this country by this sort of play than they are in England. I can feel it. I can feel the audience being shocked.
INTERVIEWER How do you feel that?
LEIGH Well, because they take a breath before they dare laugh, for a start. They're not as quick, I don't think, for a play of this nature. I'm not complaining, because they've been perfectly marvelous. But they are- in fact, they suddenly think, "Oh heavens, what she said," you know, and they're kind of alarmed. The very truth of the play, the sophistication of it, shocks them. And they're very fascinating to play to. They're dead quiet, and their enthusiasim is marvelous.
INTERVIEWER Have you noticed that in any other plays? The difference in the temper of the audience?
LEIGH Yes, yes, quite different. When we were here with the Cleopatras--the Shaw and the Shakespeare--they were much slower to laugh in the Shaw. I noticed that very much. And I think, on the whole, one has to speak much more slowly for an American audience. Of course, it's because of our English accent. That again--that you have to speak more slowly and make it much clearer for them than you would do for an English audience--that is a very good thing, a very good challenge.
INTERVIEWER I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that we are getting increasingly used to being bludgeoned on the head by some of our playwrights.
LEIGH I think that may be so. I think that may be so very easily. But all classical plays--I mean, we play Shakespeare all the time in England, and we play to all classes.
INTERVIEWER We're sort of coming into that now with the American Shakespeare Festival.
LEIGH Yes, and with the Lincoln center. I think that's just the most marvelous thing here.
INTERVIEWER I'm going to ask a question now, which shouldn't offend you--but have you found, or did you find in your early years, that your beauty was a handicap?
LEIGH Certainly I did, and it's very, very irritating, because people think that if you look fairly reasonable, you can't possibly act, and as I only care about acting, I think beauty can be a great handicap, if you really want to look like the part you're playing--which isn't necessarily like you.
INTERVIEWER As a matter of fact, it was said of you, largely I think in England, that your beauty had brought you success before you learned the ABC's of acting.
LEIGH Absolutely true. But I remember the morning after The Mask of Virtue--which is the first play I did at the West End--that some critics saw fit to be as foolish as to say that I was a great actress. And I thought, that was a foolish, wicked thing to say, because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn't able to carry. And it took me years to learn enough to live up to what they said--for those first notices. I find it so stupid. I remember the critic very well, and have never forgiven him.
INTERVIEWER Who was the critic?
LEIGH W. A. Darlington
LEIGH Yes. That's what he said in the Daily Telegraph, and I read it and thought, "That very awful man."
INTERVIEWER Now that's rather interesting, because, on the basis of what you said, it appears he recanted in subsequent reviews.
LEIGH Yes he did.
INTERVIEWER You were aware of that?
LEIGH Oh, yes, I was certainly aware of it. I read all the reviews.
INTERVIEWER Beacause after that he began to grade you very carefully. For instance, in The Doctor's Dilemma, he said Miss Leigh performed a remarkable job in that play. Shaw didin't give her too much to work with....
LEIGH No, it's a wretched role
INTERVIEWER But, he went on, she came through, and now it remains to be seen whether she has the emotional depth to carry on in the theatre. I mean, he was always waiting for you to bring something forth.
INTERVIEWER Actually to get back to this matter of beauty in the theatre--you say it was a handicap. I'm sure you wouldn't trade that beauty for a plainer visage, would you?
LEIGH Oh, I think Edith Evans is the most marvelous actress in the world and she can look beautiful. I mean, people who aren't beautiful can look beautiful. She can look as beautiful as Diana Cooper, who was the most beautiful woman in the world to my mind.
INTERVIEWER They can evoke a spirit.
LEIGH Yes--which is the most important thing. Actual beauty--beauty of feature is not what matters, it's beauty of spirit and beauty of imagination and beauty of mind. I tried in Streetcar to let people see what Blanche was like when she was in love with her young husband when she was seventeen or eighteen. That was awfully important, because Blanche, who needn't necessarily have been a beautiful person, but she--you should have been able to see what she was like, and how this gradually had happened to her. And her sister helps by saying, "Nobody was tender and trusting as she was," and that's a very important line. And I remember I quarreled with Mr. Kazan, our director, on that, because the way it was said, I didn't approve of. I think the very words tender and trusting are words that have to be elongated because they are marvelous words, and in those two things you have to evoke this whole creature when she was young and when she was tender and trusting, as opposed to what she had become--cynical and hard, mad, and distressed and distraught.
INTERVIEWER Now, I'm curious to know, and particularly now that you've conceded that this was a problem, what did you do to overcome this?
LEIGH Played as many different parts as possible. A variety of roles.
INTERVIEWER I was going to ask you--how does one, in fact, learn to be an actress? What steps did you take? And you've answered it by saying doing as great a variety of ..
LEIGH As great a variety as possible.
INTERVIEWER What is required of a person who sets out to be an actor or an actress?
LEIGH Oh, heavens! Strength.
INTERVIEWER Strength in what sense?
LEIGH Strength in health and imagination and courage, I think, and patience.
INTERVIEWER Would you take each one of those by itself and elaborate a little bit for us.
LEIGH Well, strength because it's a very hard life. The hours are different from the rest of normal living, and in order to be able to act well, you have to be in marvelous physical condition. It's very important--in order for your voice to be absolutely right, in order for you too look right, you have to be in good physical training. It's a most disciplinarian job--a disciplinarian feat, I think, as the army, you know. All day long you're really leading up to the evening's performance, in order to time everything correctly, you have to take care of yourself--which is a very difficult thing to do, because it's highly emotional, and once the performance is over, you're inclined to say, "Oh, thank God"--a great release. And then, you just stay up too late and talk too much and that kind of thing.
INTERVIEWER Is there that heightened feeling about every performance?
LEIGH Every performance. The other day I was going on, and Mr. Merivale said, "Why are you shaking?" I said because I was nervous. And I'd been playing it then for ten months--nine months in London and one month in New York. Every single night I'm nervous.
INTERVIEWER That's very distressing. But why must it be every night?
LEIGH The audience is different. You never know how the audience is going to react, so it's different for you every night. You never know what the other actors are going to do, quite. I mean, it stays pretty much the same, but any thing can happen. It's one of the hazards of acting.
INTERVIEWER In other words, every performance is a different performance.
LEIGH Yes, it is. You're adding something all the time, to begin with.
INTERVIEWER And each performance is shaped by the performance, is it?
LEIGH Yes, it is,in a way.
INTERVIEWER Now, to make a switch to that famous role of yours, Scarlett O'Hara. Did getting the role of Scarlett O'Hara hurt your career in any way?
LEIGH No, I think it helped enormously.
INTERVIEWER I thought that perhaps coming so early in your career, and focusing so much attention on you, that it might have been some kind of handicap.
LEIGH No, it was such a marvelous role that it helped. I certainly intended to get it, I may say. From the moment I read the book, I said, "I've got to play that," and I was laughed to scorn on it.
INTERVIEWER And you certainly had a lot of competition
LEIGH I certainly did.
INTERVIEWER Several others were determined to play the role?
LEIGH Yes, they were, and the day that I was tested for it, I remember the costumes being taken hot off somebody else's body and put on mine. It was quite unpleasant.
INTERVIEWER It's rather interesting, in a sense, that you had the courage to do this, because actually here was a Southern belle...
LEIGH I never found accents difficult, after learning languages. That didn't bother me.
INTERVIEWER Could that be something that any actress can do?
LEIGH They should be able to.
INTERVIEWER Well now, thats a big, big statement. Do you mean that every actress should be able to act the entire range from low comedy to high tragedy?
LEIGH I do--ideally.
LEIGH Ideally. My husband, who's the greatest actor in the world, can do anything. Look at what he did in The Critic and Oedipus. In every role he gets--he did this in Richard the Third--there's nothing he can't do, nothing. Just nothing.
INTERVIEWER Is that one reason why you wanted to do Look after Lulu, because it was a farce and something novel for you?
LEIGH No, I did Look After Lulu out of expediency, to tell you the truth. I didn't have anything, I hadn't read a play that I wanted to do. I'd asked Noel Coward to translate Georges Feydeau's Occupe-toi d'Amelie, and he'd done it, and then I wouldn't do it for months and months. And suddenly came the time when I said I should be working, because the whole point of acting is to act, you know-you just can't sit around. There's no use being an actress who doesn't act. It's one's job and also one has to make money, let's face it. And so I said I'd do it, but I didn't want to, and I despised to very much. And Noel Coward and I talked about it and he hadn't liked translating it and I hated playing it--and yet it taught me a lot.
INTERVIEWER In what way?
LEIGH That you can do things reasonably well, even if you dislike them very much. I've been very fortunate. I've done mostly plays in my life that I loved to do. This one, I didn't want to do. I didn't like doing it, and all the time I was doing it, I disliked it; yet, the mere fact--the discipline--of having to do it, I think, taught me a lot.
INTERVIEWER Sort of character training?
LEIGH Yes. If you're in love with something, it's comparatively easy, but if you're not, then life is more difficult, isn't it?
INTERVIEWER That's right. Now, at the time of Doctor's Dilemma you...
LEIGH That I didn't like.
INTERVIEWER Then why did you do it? Was this something that was regarded as a step in the development of your career?
LEIGH For one thing, we hadn't one single penny between us, my husband and I. And they were going to do this, the Tennant management--Hugh Beaumont, who I think is the most marvelous manager in the whole world, and that includes our own management. I think that Hugh Beaumont is just the most marvelously courageous impresario that there is. During the war he kept the theatre alive. And he said we are going to do The Doctor's Dilemma and I would play Jennifer Dubedat. He took me to meet Shaw--Shaw had written about Jennifer Dubedat. He wrote to the first Jennifer and he said, "This is the sort of woman I hate, and you're going to have your work cut out to make her fascinating." And that is true. So in a way she's good discipline--to make her interesting. Because the real interesting part...All of the Doctors are marvelous parts and so is Dubedat, but Jennifer is really, well, she's just not an interesting woman.
INTERVIEWER You were criticized in The Doctor's Dilemma for a mannered, swooping way of walking. Are you aware of that?
LEIGH I walked according to the costume and the way I felt that a woman would walk. I daresay it was affected but she was an affected creature.
INTERVIEWER In other words, you don't feel that this criticism had any validity?
LEIGH No, no, I don't.
INTERVIEWER I thought when I read about it that it was something that was a manner of yours which was a problem that you had to overcome.
INTERVIEWER But actually you adopted it for the play.
LEIGH I adopted it for the part.
INTERVIEWER You say that you love people and you like asking them questions. Do you study every person, or most persons, you meet?
LEIGH Yes, anybody whom I find interesting. I love old people for that reason.
INTERVIEWER What do you get from old people?
LEIGH Their wisdom will do for a start; the fact that they've lived. I've always loved older people. My friends, when I was young, were always older than I was, and I've always liked them. And I love old men and old ladies, really. But I've known more elderly men, like Max Beerbohm, like Beranard Berenson, like Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill--I'd put him first, anyway--what they say is so wise and so good. They know what they're talking about.
INTERVIEWER What or who has influenced you most as an actress?
LEIGH Oh, my husband.
INTERVIEWER In what ways?
LEIGH Well, I saw him fifteen times in Hamlet and I thought, "That's the greatest actor in the world." And I think acting is an important profession, because acting can give pleasure and can teach you at the same time, and that is a good thing. And he taught me more about how actors should be, about how an actor should live, than anybody I can imagine.
INTERVIEWER You've mentioned before the necessity of health and strength and how one should live. Do you have any special kind of regimen when you are working for a role?
LEIGH Yes, I do. I like to get to the theatre very early, to begin with. I like to be in my dressing room early. I go through my part every night before I go on.
INTERVIEWER What do you mean you go through your part every night?
LEIGH Well, I mean I say my part to myself every night.
INTERVIEWER You really do?
LEIGH Every night. Yes.
INTERVIEWER Without cues. Just your part?
LEIGH Well, I know all the parts anyway.
INTERVIEWER How long does it take you to do something like this?
LEIGH I find it essential to know my part before I start rehearsing, so I like to get a play weeks before and learn the whole thing. I don't agree with all the new method some young actors and actresses have of saying, "Oh, I can't learn the lines before I do the moves," I don't agree with that. I like to know the lines absolutely, because then I can concentrate during the three or four weeks' rehearsal, or whatever it is, on learning more about it. If I haven't got the lines, I'm wasting all that time learning lines when I could be spending it on bringing the imaginative part of it, the creative part of the work.
INTERVIEWER I'm fascinated by the fact that you say you go through your entire part every evening before your performance.
INTERVIEWER This is very unusual. What inclined you to...?
LEIGH Well, for one thing, it gets me in the mood of the play. I don't mean by that when people come in--I like to have people come visit me all the time in the dressing room, I love that. But I can go through the lines, quite quietly; I don't say them out loud.
INTERVIEWER Very interesting.
LEIGH But I go through it in my head
INTERVIEWER I want to get this regimen on a twenty-four hour basis. Now, you get to the theatre well in advance of curtain time.
INTERVIEWER In other words, well in advance of eight o' clock. You must be in the theatre by seven, I would say.
LEIGH I get in an hour before
INTERVIEWER That would be seven-thirty.
INTERVIEWER And then after the theatre what do you do?
LEIGH Well, then I like to dance better than anything.
INTERVIEWER Do you find dancing very relaxing?
LEIGH Yes, I like dancing and riding and swimming.
INTERVIEWER You can't go swimming at three o'clock in the morning.
LEIGH Now don't you worry, you can, you know.
INTERVIEWER You have to know the right places.
INTERVIEWER Then what time do you get to bed?
LEIGH Oh, terribly late. I love sitting up. I love talking with friends, and anybody.
INTERVIEWER What would you say is the time that you go to bed?
LEIGH Four, five.
INTERVIEWER And what time do you generally rise?
LEIGH This is when I'm working?
INTERVIEWER When you're working, that's right.
LEIGH Otherwise I go to bed at ten or eleven.
INTERVIEWER We're talking about when you're working.
LEIGH Then I get up--I never sleep for more than five hours, hardly ever.
INTERVIEWER You can get along on that?
LEIGH Yes, I can get along. I never slept much, ever. Since I was born I haven't slept much.
INTERVIEWER Now, let's see, we've got you in bed at four--that means you're up by nine.
LEIGH Nine. I'm awake at nine. I don't get up. I lie about and read, telephone, write. But I don't like the telephone at all. I absolutely hate it.
INTERVIEWER Do you do anything in the way of physical callisthenics?
LEIGH No, never.
INTERVIEWER Then what do you do?
LEIGH I love walking.
INTERVIEWER Is that part of your regimen?
LEIGH No, I don't do anything like that.
INTERVIEWER What do you do to keep fit, let us say, aside from walking?
LEIGH Nothing.
LEIGH Absolutely nothing.
INTERVIEWER But do you rest during the day up until curtain time?
LEIGH I sleep for an hour, I get into bed, draw the curtain, pretend it's night, for an hour before I go to the theatre. And then I have something very light to eat. You can't act on an empty stomach, because you're breathing's all wrong.
INTERVIEWER Yes. You don't have any social life in the afternoons if you can help it?
LEIGH No, no. I go to a movie or I go to an art gallery.
INTERVIEWER I see. You say that you read in the morning--does this have any relationship to your views about gaining new experiences?
LEIGH I don't read nearly enough. I go through periods where I can't read at all, can't read, can't do anything.
INTERVIEWER Has reading actually ever been a particularly moving experience for you?
LEIGH Yes--Dickens. All during the war when I was traveling on these blackout trains, because I used to go back to see my husband on weekends, I read the whole of Dickens. And I think that that was one of the most thrilling experiences.
INTERVIEWER Is this something which you have called on in your career?
LEIGH Dickens?
INTERVIEWER Yes. In acting a part, has it enriched your experience of life?
LEIGH Oh, yes. The Dickens characters are just marvelous. I think that was the most thrilling of all-round reading experiences. And then I read poetry quite a lot.
INTERVIEWER Any special reason?
LEIGH I just like it.
INTERVIEWER I mean, there's nothing for the ear? I mean, there's no utilitarian purpose in reading poetry?
LEIGH No. I try to learn it as I go along. I've been ill for long periods of my life and have tried to learn a sonnet a day and that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER Whose poetry do you read?
LEIGH Shakespeare's and Shelley and Browning and Dylan Thomas, who I think is a marvelous poet.
INTERVIEWER How did you prepare dor the two Cleopatras?
LEIGH Well, every time I do any important role at all I go back to school, as it were. I go to an elocution teacher. There have been lots of different ones, and every time I do something like that. For instance, before the Cleopatras I went to a marvelous teacher. I didn't study the role with her, but I studied the actual speeches with her and did exercises. I still do. And before 'Duel of Angels', I went to a marvelous woman who Robert Helpmann told me about whose name escapes me at the moment. She was wonderful and I went to her for breathing exercises. I go into a sort of little training before every big role. I find it essential because I'm, I guess, out of practice--like you do anything else. I mean, athletes go into training, and actors should go into training.
INTERVIEWER That was the physical preparation, let us say, for a role. And I asked you specifically, in relation to the Cleopatras, how did you grasp it intellectually?
LEIGH Just read the play.
INTERVIEWER Didn't you read Plutarch?
LEIGH Yes I did. Oh, yes, naturally.
INTERVIEWER Did you try to find out everything you could possibly find out about her?
LEIGH Yes, I did. I read about everything. For instance, Dover Wilson. I read him very carefully and--what else did I read? I can't remember what else I read but I read anything I could get hold of on Cleopatra.
INTERVIEWER Why do you think this is helpful?
LEIGH Oh, it just gets you into the atmaosphere and into the mood.
INTERVIEWER I've heard some people say that it is enough to read the play itself, because a good playwright will supply you with all you need.
LEIGH I think Shakespeare does.
INTERVIEWER Yes. You don't need anything more.
LEIGH But there is a marvelous--there is a beautiful little series of books about Shakespeare's characters before the plays start. For instance, Glen Byam Shaw has them. They're written by a woman in the last century. And Viola, for instance, was very helpful to me because there was the whole of Viola's life before the play starts, and the fact that she'd seen Orsino when she was a small girl, so when she saw him suddenly at court--when she comes to Illyria--she's already in love with him, which starts her on the right foot. And there's a marvelous account of Lady Macbeth before 'Macbeth' starts, about how Macbeth rode up to the castle when she was a young woman and how she fell in love with him. Because, to me, 'Macbeth' is a great love story and I'd never found Lady Macbeth a monster. I think she's a perfectly unsderstandable human being, and I adored playing it. It's one of my favourite roles.
INTERVIEWER And you understand her.
LEIGH Yes, by knowing something about her life before--exactly, exactly.
INTERVIEWER You had a special problem in the Cleopatra undertaking, and that was a manner of voice, as I recall.
LEIGH Yes, but I went to a man called Baraldi and he said you use your voice like your boots, like climbing boots, I think he said. He said, "You have to keep your voice down for the older Cleopatra and bring it right up for the young one." He said to use your voice like mountain shoes, he said. And so I said, "Yes, well, I've got to." And he said, "Well, it will be very strenuous and you must take great care while you're doing it," and indeed he was right. It was a great strain.
INTERVIEWER You played the older Cleopatra with the deeper voice.
LEIGH Yes, just as one's voice does get deeper. When I first started out, James Agate said that my voice was absolutely apalling, which it was--it was very high-pitched and squeaky and altogether absolutely rotten.
INTERVIEWER How did you learn to develop your voice? Only through elocution?
LEIGH It wasn't Baraldi. Baraldi was the first one I went to when I was nineteen, and then Cunelli was the other voice teacher I went to before the Cleopatras. Cunelli was, in fact, a singing teacher.
INTERVIEWER Besides elocution, do you find singing lessons good--or do you take them?
LEIGH Singing lessons, I think, are marvelous for a speaking voice.
INTERVIEWER Which of the two Cleopatras was the easier one for you to play?
LEIGH Oh, Shaw was easier, and Shakespeare was much the more interesing and much the one I loved the most.
INTERVIEWER Why was that?
LEIGH Because it was a fuller character.
INTERVIEWER In what ways?
LEIGH It had more variety--an older woman.
INTERVIEWER You have said that American actors have only just started to be trained, and I was curious to know what you meant by that.
LEIGH They are only just starting, I think, to do the classics as much as we do them in England or in France or in any other country. America is younger in every way.
INTERVIEWER How does a director help an actor?
LEIGH By giving him confidence, because most actors, I think, are lackingin confidence. By helping with his own particular gifts.
INTERVIEWER And imagination is one of these gifts, isn't it?
LEIGH Indeed imagination really means how to present an idea in the most interesting way, in an imaginative fashion. It may be very eccentric, it may be art, but, well--just that the imagination can take flight, so that you can do things in an imaginative way as oppose to a pedestrian way or an ordinary way.
INTERVIEWER I would like to get back to, if I may, the problems of the actor. I have read that there's a danger to actors in too much intellectualization, too much soul-searching, and too little knowledge of technique.
LEIGH I quite agree. I think all this talk about acting is--you just have to act, you have to do the thing, you have to practice the art, just like a painter practices his art, just like a writer writes.

article donated by Selina Chan