Interview: No regrets for actress Blythe Duff

Blythe Duff during rehearsals for Into That Darkness. Picture: Tim Morozzo

Blythe Duff during rehearsals for Into That Darkness. Picture: Tim Morozzo

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BLYTHE Duff is sitting in the bar of the Citizens’ Theatre, a roll untouched on the table in front of her.

It would be an exaggeration to say she looks like the weight of the world is on her shoulders, but only just. Perhaps it’s not that surprising. It is early in week two of rehearsals for Into That Darkness, based on Gitta Sereny’s searing examination of Nazism. Sereny’s book followed her extensive interviews with Franz Stangl, a concentration camp commander responsible for the deaths of 900,000 people. Duff is playing Sereny opposite Cliff Burnett as Stangl.

I look around and I don’t know how actors have kept themselves going

It’s not exactly easy material. “No, it’s not,” Duff says through a mouthful of roll. “I’m glad we’re speaking this week, not last week.” It’s plain that rehearsals, working with director Gareth Nicholls, have been gruelling. “You always hit a point where you find the material really affects you or that you’re just trying to come to grips with the words,” she says. But they are now “off the book” and Duff is feeling more positive, as though things are coming together.

“It’s about, what does this actor need from me and what do I need from him? Cliff and I have very different styles. We had a conversation this morning that everything we’ve gone through over the last couple of weeks can only be an absolute aid to this piece. We’ve come through something.”

Duff speaks softly but with some urgency. It’s an interesting mix, it draws you in, and I can’t help but think of detective Jackie Reid, sharing details of a case. Taggart may have ended in 2010 and Duff has firmly reestablished herself since as a fine stage actor, but, of course, Reid is still the part for which she’s best known. How could it be any other way? It was a role that had lasted for 21 years.

Since then a string of meaty theatre roles – including the David Harrower monologue Ciara, for which she won her second Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland accolade in a row, and her appearance in last year’s triumphant James Plays – have repositioned Duff as a well-regarded actor, not just that woman off the telly. But such professional challenges can take their toll, to judge by Duff’s serious mood. Or is it just the impact of working with such tough material as Into That Darkness?

“I generally love rehearsing,” she says. “If that’s all I did I’d be happy. But I’ve found this one of the most difficult so far,” Duff admits.

Into That Darkness was published in 1974. It used 70 hours of interviews between Sereny and Stangl, conducted over two months. Sereny’s aim was not to prove Stangl guilty – his trial was over, he had been convicted – but to explain the mindset that lay behind the Nazi atrocities. It was, in a sense, a more subtle, complex and harrowing task.

Born in Vienna to Hungarian aristocracy, Sereny was a teenager at school in Paris when war broke out. After the conflict she worked for UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) in south German camps for displaced people. Her job was trying to unite young children who had been held in concentration camps or as forced labourers with their families. The unavoidable consequence was daily wrangling with the question, ‘How could apparently ordinary people commit such extraordinarily terrible acts?’

What came as a shock to readers was the way Sereny had established a relationship with Stangl; that they seemed almost to like each other. Duff and Burnett, have to capture that same intensity, that same intimacy. It’s not surprising that it’s a tough ask.

“I think every job should make you think about where you are, how you approach things, what you bring to the table,” Duff says. “I’m not an intellectual. I consider myself to be intelligent, to be sharp, but I’m not an intellectual. Now I’m playing someone who is, with all that going on. It’s layered and layered; it’s all just sitting there in her brain.”

She pauses and looks at her roll, but doesn’t pick it up. “Sometimes you have to put the subject matter to one side, although that sounds and feels really weird. I think we’re going to give the audience a piece that’s every bit as intense as the book. I hope it gives a flavour of that interview style and that they see that Sereny and Stangl had a meeting of minds.”

Duff hopes that the play’s audience, arriving in the belief that they are familiar with the subject matter, as she did, will discover that Sereny’s work can still offer a new insight into the horror of the Final Solution. “We all have our own ideas, often based on what age we are, of what that period of history means to us,” she says. “I grew up, born in 62, in the 70s thinking it wasn’t that far away and it could possibly happen again. My dad had been torpedoed in the war and my mum had been blown across the room in Dennistoun. It was part of our family history. And every Sunday night, The World At War would come on.” She hums the theme tune. “My dad would harmonise to that tune…”

The nostalgic moment is suddenly cut short when two girls arrive at our table. “I’m really sorry to interrupt but can I get a picture?” says one to Duff.

“How long are you here for,” Duff asks, ready to stall them. But it turns out they’re going into a rehearsal and so it’s now or never.

“Right, come on then, let’s do it,” Duff says, standing up and putting an arm around the girl as her pal takes one picture and then another. They leave, delighted, looking at their phone and giggling as they go.

Duff sits down and doesn’t skip a beat. The charming TV celebrity has returned to her earnest inquiry into an architect of the Holocaust. “We had a forensic psychologist come in to talk to us about psychopaths,” she says. “The fascinating thing is that Stangl wasn’t a psychopath – that was a shock to most of us. But the really fascinating thing is that over 70 hours Sereny managed to get to the root of this man, over a two-and-a-half month period. By the end of it she was bringing him soup. He was waving goodbye to her. Her technique must have been incredible, second to none. The woman who was talking to us said that she’d spoken to people for years and never got to that point.”

Sereny didn’t want to know what Stangl did or didn’t do, it’s about what he felt. And here Duff has to admit that playing DS Reid is an imperfect preparation for such a role. “It’s been a tricky thing for me,” says Duff, “having played a detective for so long. There is not one question I haven’t asked. Question marks and me go together – I know how to ask questions, but Sereny’s not interrogating him. She wants it to be a dialogue.”

I had wondered when, or whether, Jackie Reid would come up in our conversation. I had wondered who would mention her first. That it was Duff doesn’t surprise me. It turns out the Maryhill CID detective is never far away. Taggart isn’t a kind of uncomfortable secret, or sensitive subject for Duff. She has nothing but fond memories and gratitude for the character and the show that gave her a steady job and income for more than 20 years. In fact, she might just be a little nostalgic about her.

“There’s not one thing about Taggart that wasn’t a positive,” she says. “It was an extraordinary learning experience – learning how to work with cameras, how to keep a character buoyant for all that time, financially too. I look around and think, I don’t know how actors have kept themselves going. Talk about a minimum wage; Jesus it doesn’t come close. I enjoyed the creativity on set that the majority of actors never get near. I would go into work and have an input. I knew that character better than anybody.”

So what made Duff choose projects such as Harrower’s fine two-hander, Good With People, or Karen McClachlan’s Just Checking as well as a series of roles for the National Theatre of Scotland? Did she feel she had to stick her neck out when she could certainly have played it safer. Maybe she wanted to remind people that before Taggart, theatre was where she made her name?

“I didn’t need reminded that I’d done that. I knew that. But I think it was about being reminded to what extent I’d done it and to know that I still could do it.” And what about other people?

“Yeah, absolutely, of course,” she says. “I took it for granted that people knew that’s what I’d done. Doing 21 years of a telly thing you cannot help but become the person on the telly who sometimes does theatre. That’s just the nature of the beast. A lot of people who meet me will say, ‘Aw you no’ doing anything now?’ So I just say I’ve been having a lovely time in the theatre.” She rolls her eyes.

Duff is the first to admit that leaving the safety of primetime television to tread the boards has been quite an education. “I don’t have a lot of general knowledge,” she says, returning to the process of discovering the world with which Sereny was so consumed. “There are big chunks missing. That’s probably why I love rehearsing because that’s where I do all that finding out. But sometimes I do wonder, how have I got through my life without knowing that? How have I stumbled through to the age of 52 with no clue about that?”

There follows the faintest whiff of a moment of crisis, although it’s delivered like a comedy monologue. Duff, far from riding the crest of a wave, has recently found herself wondering whether this is all really for her.

“I’m going through a kind of cathartic period,” she says. “It started at the end of last year and continued into the beginning of this one. It’s a weird feeling. For the first time ever, I thought I don’t know if I need to act. I was a bit exhausted being other people. I just wanted some time to be just me; just me and what I am in my home, in my family.

“I could have made money,” she says with a laugh. “See, when it comes down to it, I do think I could’ve gone down that commercial route and there would be big audiences and that would be that. I think that’s what my husband thinks as well. He’s been so brilliant, so supportive. But I think now it’s like, ‘What are you doing now? What about voice-overs?’”

She laughs, but it’s clear, just as with the ordeal of her first week of rehearsals, that Duff has, to use her words, “been through something”.

“I’ve never, ever put a question mark over whether I’d be doing this at the age of 70,” she says. “I think it was just last year, which had been extraordinary, finishing the James Plays, and I just felt ‘If I don’t have to learn something or think about something then I’ll be quite happy.’”What she needed was a bit of a break, time to hibernate.

Ironically, it was the offer of Into That Darkness that was “a shining light” in this period of uncertainty. It looked interesting, it was a short run, and it would be manageable. She laughs. “That’s probably what was in my heart – let’s get this done and dusted.

“Maybe this has brought me back out of a malaise,” she adds, then instantly corrects herself. “No, it’s not been a malaise, I think it’s the age I am. My girls are making their way in the world, my husband is out working and I’m, like, OK.”

She shrugs. “I started to do things like make cards. I’ve become completely craft obsessed. I mean obsessed. The stuff is taking up the whole house. I always was drawn to paper and crafting. But I felt, right, actually I could do this for the rest of my life, stick bits of paper to other bits of paper.”

So had the offer of Into That Darkness not arrived, would that have happened?

“That email arrived at the same time as a few other bits and pieces,” she says. “There were three or four things and it made me think, ‘Right, it’s time to turn my head to this.’ But there was a point that I thought, if I didn’t check my emails then I wouldn’t have to address it and that would be fine.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know how long it would’ve been, might’ve been another three months and then I would’ve thought, ‘Right, I’m ready.’ But it was about just gathering my energy, my physical and mental energy.”

She wraps up the rest of her roll, gives me a kiss on the cheek and heads back into rehearsals. n

Twitter: @scottiesays

Into That Darkness, Citizens’ Theatre until 30 May. As part of the year-long celebrations of the Citizens’ 70th anniversary at its Gorbals home, all tickets are available for £15, with previews £8.50 and Tuesday performances £12.50. Tickets can be purchased by calling 0141 429 0022 or at citz.co.uk

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