Curtain call for a shrew operator - Michelle Gomez interview
Michelle Gomez is returning to the stage for a dream role in Shakespeare after the comedy detour that has made her name, writes Mark Fisher
SHE has taken her time about it, but Michelle Gomez is finally learning how to be ambitious. Whatever it is that propelled her to those heady television heights – the insecure footballer's wife Janice McCann in The Book Group; the hilariously bonkers Sue White in Green Wing; the raucous Amanda, upwardly mobile bride-to-be, in Irvine Welsh's Wedding Belles – it wasn't a lust for fame and glory.
"I became an actress because I'm lazy," she says. "I wouldn't apply myself at school. I was quite bright but I didn't do much with it and I thought acting was dressing up and shouting for a living – which, of course, it isn't."
Even being married to Jack Davenport, who has played opposite Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley and Keira Knightley in Pirates Of The Caribbean since graduating from This Life, seems to have made little impression on her down-to-earth approach to the job. "We're at home with the bangers and mash like everybody else," says Gomez, who turns 37 tomorrow. "I don't understand this schmoozing business, turning up to things you have absolutely nothing to do with. I can't be bothered and I haven't got the frocks."
But slowly, she admits, the evidence is accumulating that she's all right at this acting lark and maybe it's time to pursue it with a keener sense of purpose. "I seem to be becoming ambitious," she says with an air of astonishment. "The older I get, the more I'm starting to believe in myself. I'm beginning to think of roles that I could do that I would not have allowed myself to think of before, saying: 'That's not for me, that's for the big guns.'"
One reason for her former uncertainty is the unpredictability of her profession. To her television fans who relished her every OTT grimace in the surreal comedy of Green Wing and to the West End theatregoers who lapped up her performance in Boeing-Boeing last year ("Gomez repeatedly brings the house down," said Variety), it's impossible to imagine anyone else in her roles. Yet if it hadn't been for Annie Griffin taking an inspired leap of faith by casting her in The Book Group, her journey into quirky comedy might never have begun.
Back in 2000, Gomez was a much admired actor on the Scottish theatre scene. She'd done a series of roles at the Citizens' Theatre, ranging from Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting to Noel Coward's Cavalcade, as well as the usual bit parts in Taggart and The Bill. It was at the Traverse during the Edinburgh Fringe that Griffin spotted her in Abandonment, the stage debut of novelist Kate Atkinson.
"I was doing very serious theatre," says Gomez, her ice-blue eyes even more striking than her high cheekbones. "I had great ideas of converting the Communist Manifesto into a physical theatre piece. Abandonment was a period piece; I had to wear a taffeta dress and I was taking myself very seriously. Annie Griffin took me for lunch one day between shows. She talked to me about The Book Group and wondered if I'd even be interested. She suggested that the performance she'd just seen me in was one of the funniest things she'd ever seen and perhaps I should think of comedy."
She breaks off laughing, and deadpans: "I was black affronted. I was polishing up my Lady Macbeth at that point, so I've got a lot to be thankful to Annie for."
Edinburgh-based Griffin had spotted something that had always been there, releasing in Gomez a talent for physical comedy that has gone from strength to strength.
"I always say: 'If I'm lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work again, that's it, I'm being wheeled on, sitting on a sofa and someone's going to feed me grapes and I'm not getting up.' But I seem unable to deliver a line without falling down. I'm going to have to be chained down to give a performance that isn't physical."
Offstage, she's a considerably quieter person than her public persona would suggest, and admits it's the social freedom of acting that she relishes. "I think of some of the stuff I've done as being a heightened version of how we'd all like to be, saying the things we'd like to say but never would. It gives me the forum to be physically free."
Now Gomez is getting the chance to be serious as well as physically free as she returns to the stage in The Taming Of The Shrew for the Royal Shakespeare Company. On paper it looks like perfect casting. Who better than her to play the sharp-tongued Katherine?
"It's a role I've always hoped I would play one day," says Gomez before the day's work begins in the RSC's scruffy London rehearsal rooms. "It came as no surprise to my family and my brothers that I was playing this role. My mother's forever saying: 'You're such a shrew.' So I guess I'll be able to bring quite a lot to the table. With most parts there's that fine line between the actor and the character. I bring so much of myself to each character that there's always a worrying point when I think: 'Oh no, I'm really that person.'"
If Gomez really were Katherine, however, it's unlikely she'd end up taking Shakespeare's course of action. Despite her wilful independence at the start, this shrew is eventually tamed, becoming the most obedient of wives and professing herself "ashamed that women are so simple to offer war where they should kneel for peace". This acquiescence has made it one of Shakespeare's more contentious plays, requiring the actor to find a way to preserve her feminist dignity in front of a 21st-century audience.
"To be able to sell that end speech to modern women was the challenge I wanted to see if I could take on," she says. "What helps is making her human. I really do like her and I hope the audience does as well. I'm not coming at it like the stereotypical screaming banshee, which would be the preconceived notion of the shrew. She's not a raging, nagging nutter. Her only crime is that she is witty, intelligent, funny; those are her tools in life and that's what she's punished for."
Playing in Shakespeare for the first time since a long-forgotten Merchant Of Venice in Musselburgh, Gomez is relishing the close reading of the language that the RSC insists on. "Shakespeare's a filthy bugger," she says. "He's in the gutter. We're all going to need a bit of a shower after this production."
She'll be bringing a raw Scottish edge of her own to this Glaswegian Katherine, even though, when she thinks of national identity, she's more likely to think of the Caribbean than Caledonia. Her ancestors were moved out of Portugal 250 years ago and settled in Antigua, where she still has relatives. Her father came to Scotland to be educated at Fettes and never left, having fallen in love with her mother. "When I came home from school, it would be Harry Belafonte and rum," says this frequent visitor to Antigua. "There wouldn't be much tartan and shortbread. I feel so Scottish when I go abroad and I'm so proud of it, but for me it's not a political statement – I just happen to be Scottish."
If her exuberance is Caribbean, however, there's surely something Scottish in her self-deprecation. Even her nascent sense of ambition is of a decidedly modest kind. Despite her domestic ties, her sights are a lot closer to home than Hollywood. "If this new-found, fragile ambition had been born in me 20 years ago when I was some sort of ingenue with a nose not quite as large as the one I got, then I might have indulged the idea of getting out there, but not now," she laughs. "I'd have to get my teeth done – it's too much work. But I imagine there's a Tenko in me. The Stephanie Beacham years are yet to come."
• The Taming Of The Shrew, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Thursday until September 25; Theatre Royal, Newcastle, October 10-25
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