Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Fiona Shaw is a capital-T thespian, an actor and director who’s done productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, played canonical roles like Electra and Hedda Gabler, and garnered acclaim and accolades in a solo recitation of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Moviegoers first became acquainted with the Irish actor opposite fellow RSC alum Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot as Dr. Eileen Cole, who invites Christy Brown to her clinic for patients with cerebral palsy. (“If you work with me, I’ll help you say ‘fuck off’ more clearly,” she tells him.) Since then, she’s regularly alternated appearances onstage with roles in films and television, including a decade long stretch as Harry Potter’s severe, normalcy-seeking muggle guardian, Aunt Petunia. Currently, Shaw can be seen as the shrewd spy master Carolyn in Killing Eve; she also re-teams with former Killing Eve showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a small part in the second season of Waller-Bridge’s Amazon comedy, Fleabag, which debuts May 17.
The A.V. Club: What role are you most frequently recognized for?
Fiona Shaw: You know, I have two audiences. I have a theater audience and a film audience. And I suppose in Britain—and probably in New York—I’m most recognized for Richard II or Medea. But in my film world, Three Men And A Little Lady was a huge hit over many years, and people still recognize me from that. And of course, Harry Potter—and of course, now, Killing Eve.
AVC: Had you read any of the books before shooting Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone?
FS: No, but funny enough that summer I was down in Cornwall and there were two little boys who were reading the books. And I remember reading big huge chunks of the Harry Potter novels to these little boys. So that’s quite a time—20 years ago now. They’re grown men, but they remember it, and so do I, that they knew bits of off by heart. That book sequence had the same effect on children as Killing Eve seems to have on adults. [Laughs.]
AVC: When people recognize you as Petunia, how do they respond? She’s a character people feel strongly about.
FS: Well, I don’t know. People don’t exactly recoil when they see me. [Laughs.] if that’s what you’re hoping! I think what’s astonishing about that phenomenon [for readers] is that people that they met in books suddenly became made flesh by having a screen life. I don’t know whether we corresponded to the books enough or whether people began to read the books with the people who play the parts in the films as the prototype. We became synonymous with the roles, and what you’re doing is you’re walking into people’s imaginations.
I remember an astonishing, lateral fact: [After the films were released] my father would notice sometimes that cars were going slowly past his gate, and children would be stopping their parents saying “Harry Potter’s grandfather lives in there.” That is amazing. I didn’t work that out. If I’m Harry Potter’s aunt, his mother and my mother shared parents, who by then the audience decided lived in Ireland where my dad lived. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was it like filming those movies? The Dursley scenes were kept separate from the Hogwarts scenes, so they’re almost like movies-within-movies.
FS: You’re right. Sometimes we would do a scene in the morning, and there would be a big scene in the school in the afternoon and you’d see a thousand children arriving and a thousand parents and a thousand minders—that’s 3,000 people for lunch. And we the Dursleys would have had a little lunch, over ourselves in a tiny corner. We tended to be filmed at the beginning of the shoot, and we tended to be absolutely isolated. It was a great privilege to shoot with Richard Griffiths, who was always so witty and funny and delightful to be around—and obviously Daniel [Radcliffe] and Harry Melling, who played my son Dudley Dursley. So we were quite a team. We were our own group. But when you’re filming, filming is filming. You have no idea of the consequences of the public success of those things when you’re doing them. You know they’re going to be successful, but you don’t have that global feeling when you’re filming. [Laughs.] You’re just doing it!
I had very funny times on Harry Potter at the beginning because I thought, “Oh, this is my first time being in something full of special effects.” But in fact a lot of the special effects were quite homespun. You may remember a scene where the letters come flying down the chimney and thousands of letters arrive for Harry. And my memory of that is helping tidying up all the letters to go for the next take. I remember I was doing a scene in the kitchen where Petunia looks out the window and there are owls looking in at her. But the problem was that the owls kept looking at the camera, which was behind them. So they tied a dead mouse to the front of my apron. So all the owls just fixated on the dead mouse and the camera was able to pass unimpeded. [Laughs.] So, special effects: There were some very, very basic effects which were just as brilliant, but very homespun.
FS: We shot some of it in L.A., and, in fact, weirdly, the interiors of the church were shot in L.A. because I think Ted Danson couldn’t make it to England for some of it—so the exteriors were done in England, but the interiors were done in Los Angeles. And that was great fun for me because I’d never been to Los Angeles for filming.
I’d just played The Good Person Of Sechuan, by Brecht, which was a huge play at The National Theatre. So it was very refreshing. This was a happy summer-camp job for me, but it had a huge effect.
AVC: Is that how you view taking film and TV jobs between theatrical roles? Like summer camp?
FS: No! When I was 28, it was. Not now. [Laughs.] I take them very seriously. I just mean that I’d just been roaring my guts out for three hours a night, and suddenly we’re doing these other, gorgeous summer shoots. They don’t equate in terms of energy.
AVC: In terms of going back and forth between theater, TV, and film, is there any difference in your approach? Or is it a “same, but different” kind of thing?
FS: I would have said before it was the same, but different. I think they’re very different now. I can’t in one sentence tell you the point of the theater, but the point of it is you’re present with the person. You’re not microphoned, and you are entirely playing thread, through space and time, of a story, in which you are carrying the history of the person and the meaning of the thing. In a way, in the theater, you are the editor of the evening—as the leading performer anyway, you’re kind of editing the evening and making it happen at a rhythm and you’re cutting the thing as you go along. And in film you are always just whatever the editor has chosen to keep, really. But I would say that more latterly—particularly something like Killing Eve—I found it very, very strange to act it because so much was about revealing very little. Basically, in the theater, you are trying to reveal—that doesn’t mean you’re going to demonstrate it, but you’re revealing the story. And massive aspects of Killing Eve, it’s about withholding the story.
AVC: Especially for Carolyn. She’s carrying some big secrets throughout that first season—how do you feel as an actor playing those slippery loyalties and allegiances?
FS: How do you mean how do I feel?
AVC: What’s it like to know something the audience doesn’t? Do you relish the opportunity to deliver what’s essentially a dual performance, where you’re projecting one thing, but the internal life of the character is another thing?
FS: Well, it’s a game, isn’t it? And in some ways the the audience play their part. That’s the amazing thing—they play too. They receive the information—what they do with it is up to them. I’m not judging what they do with it, or my misinformation, or my non-information. They’re still very free agents, the audience. But the excitement is that you’re part of a tension between the performer and the audience. I know that. And I know that they’re dying for me to reveal more, but isn’t that exquisite pleasure of it? It’s the exquisite agony of not having it revealed to you. If I revealed everything, you wouldn’t have a story.
AVC: There’d be no reason to tune in the next week.
FS: [Laughs.] It’s not that I’m trying to do that to annoy the audience, but the plot asks that of one. The whole thing would be blown if everything was known. It’s an absolute tension builder. I think what it does do is it exercises the audience’s mind to surmise. And I think Killing Eve does that over a lot of levels, it gets people to think about good and evil, and it also gets them to enjoy tantalization. It’s about the audience almost tantalizing themselves saying, “I’m sure this is what’s going to happen. I’m sure that’s going to happen. But also I have no idea what the what this person’s going to say as an answer to a question.” It’s quick as the speed of thought, isn’t it, Killing Eve? We’ve become very quick as audiences. I mean, I watch TV series, too, and we’re all thinking very, very fast. And perhaps the better the TV series, the faster we think. It’s great when you’re not ahead of the story, or ahead of the narrative. Killing Eve seems to land that very well because the narrative keeps being pulled from under your feet.
AVC: Knowing there are certain things that you can’t reveal about the new season, what can you tell about what we can expect from Carolyn in this second season?
FS: That she turns up. [Laughs.] That’s about all I’m allowed to reveal.
Obviously the story has to both change and not change because otherwise it’d be a different world. It has to be the same world. The audience are onto it at the first season—you get to know a world. It has some amazing sequences, season two—just incredible sequences of friendship and betrayal and of planning and plotting and lateral thinking. All the things that made the first series so successful. It has just really amazing cul-de-sacs. It goes up these strange side paths and they’ll make an hour very happily watchable, I think.
And maybe it also plays into some subconscious fears that are in all of us as we live in these terrible times. So I feel Carolyn is a very good character for being part of what we in England are certainly experiencing, which is a world of the government falling apart, unable to hold a false notion of what democracy might be. A kind of shallow, shabby, binary notion of democracy: “Yes, no, yes, no” is not a democracy. Carolyn has a much more sophisticated relationship to thinking, and we need more people who have more sophisticated relationships to thinking. Things don’t go “yes, no, yes, no.” We are not children and the world is not childlike, and it’s bad behavior. So I think in that way it’s subconsciously does meet a few anxieties—and perhaps also in America.
AVC: Can you talk a little bit about working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the first season, and then working with the new showrunner, Emerald Fennell, on the second?
FS: Phoebe had written the first two episodes, and we’d all agreed to do it. We didn’t know many more than that—we knew two. And I think she must’ve been working on three or four then. But she also was influenced by us, which is the great pleasure of a TV series, isn’t it? When she sees something is successful, she was able to do more of it. Or in my case, take Carolyn in a completely different direction. And that was a phenomenal surprise, for me. And she very much enjoyed writing that. I remember her saying to me, “I’ve got something so amazing in store for Carolyn.” And sure enough, she did, as we ended up going to Russia and that wonderful ambiguity and history and untidiness and drinking and very surprising aspects of Carolyn’s personality. So it is much more symbiotic, in that way, than a film where you get presented with the end product.
And then Phoebe left the show at the end of those episodes because she was doing Fleabag, which she’s now performing off-Broadway. I think she chose Emerald Fennell because Emerald is a friend of hers, and so they’re of the same generation, they have the same sort of taste. And Emerald brings her own stamp to it. Similar world, but a different different humor, as all of our humors are as different as our blood cells.
AVC: And from Killing Eve came the opportunity to be in the second season of Fleabag, correct?
FS: Well, we became friends, yeah. She just rang up before Christmas and said, “Would you do this?” I said, “I don’t think we’ve got time.” And she said, “If we can do it just before we finish or edits,” and we just at the last minute put in this sequence of Fleabag. And I was delighted to do it. And it’s beautifully written. It’s a small sequence, but it’s fabulous. Very well written.
AVC: The second season just finished up in the UK, but its Stateside debut is still a few weeks off. What can you say about the character you play in that sequence?
FS: I don’t want to spoil it, but I play her counselor.
The series itself is astonishing. I went to the first episode showing in a big cinema in London, and it was just unbelievable. It was just incredible. For an episodic piece of comedy, it was like an epic, hilarious, tragic, film all in 40 minutes or something.
AVC: Going back to that notion that a film performance is what the editor has decided to keep, you’re not onscreen for very much of The Tree Of Life, but you must’ve shot more than what ended up in the final cut.
FS: I went out to stay with them all in a place called Smithville, in Texas. It’s an amazing town with a big huge water tank—one of those gorgeous, old American Midwest water tanks right as you enter the town, with “Smithville” written on it. And it’s the first town I ever went to where I saw literally two cowboys walking down the street. And I thought, “My God, I could be in 1870 here.”
And Terry Malick is just the most delightful person you could meet. He had come to BAM in Brooklyn—what was I performing? I think I was doing Happy Days, and he came to see Happy Days, and we had lunch. He doesn’t often come to New York, he said, and we had a lovely lunch. So I felt that I knew him by the time I went down to work with him, and he’d written various things, and he asked me to write various things, and then he would film it in a million different locations. He’d film the same scene in the sitting room, in the street, down the road. He’d say, “Where would you like to film it now?” And I’d think, “What?” He’s looking for the music of the scene, isn’t he? He’s not looking for the scene of the scene or the plot of the scene.
So I filmed a lot, and at one point, about a year later, Sara [Green], the producer, said to me, “You know, your voiceover is very much the leading voice of the film.” By the time the film came out, I was almost out of it. And that tells you everything about process. [Malick] takes a world and then he chips away at it bit by bit by bit by bit. So you have no idea whether any of it is left. But I didn’t mind at all because to be even around him—you couldn’t write those scenes and do them in one go. You have to find a process by which to find them. And he did that.
But you’re dead right: I did an enormous amount of filming, and very little of it [Laughs.] was left, but I’m trying not to take it as a criticism.
Mountains Of The Moon (1990)—“Isabel Arundell”
The Black Dahlia (2006)—“Ramona Linscott”
Undercover Blues (1993)—“Novacek”
AVC: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of collaborative experiences onscreen, based on what you were just describing with Malick, and working with Phoebe in that first season of Killing Eve.
FS: And when I did Mountains Of The Moon with Bob Rafelson years ago. I’ve been very lucky to work with superb film directors—even doing The Black Dahlia [with Brian De Palma]. There’s some marvelous people who have been making films in Hollywood for a long time and they’re wonderful teachers as well. Way back, doing a film called Undercover Blues with Herbert Ross. I’ve met some fantastic directors who, who have many a story to tell, but also who knew Hollywood when it was building itself into the huge force that it remains. And they were really interesting artists. There’s a set of poet side, a country side—I’ve always felt with Bob Rafelson that he had a sort of prairie mind. Because I would tell him a bit of history: I was playing Lady Isabel Burton, and I said, “Well, you know, she had a very quiet wedding.” He said, yes, but in this film she’s going to have a huge wedding. [Laughs.] It’s a sort of a way of not being trammeled by the small, mean Anglo-Saxon version of history. I remember we were doing the dinner scene, and all the actors were saying, “I’m afraid the ladies would have to leave the table now and sit next door.” [Rafelson] said, “This is the one dinner in the 19th century where the ladies did not leave the table.” You have to have that ability to make the truth of fiction—the emotional truth of something is more important than the historical truth. And I learned that from those great directors.
AVC: You’ve also had an ongoing collaboration with Deborah Warner, with whom you did T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on stage and later in a filmed version.
FS: It was a really weird thing to happen, but a lot of art or anything that you make is a clash of two ideas. Two ideas fuse and something good comes of it or something terrible comes of it. You don’t know. But I had been asked to go to the Schaubühne in Berlin by Peter Stein to do The Waste Land with some German actors who were going to do it in German. So I learned it in English, so I would know it. And when I came back, Deborah said she had been asked to do something, not in a theater, but in a different space, and had I any texts that would be any use in a different space? I said, “I’ve just done The Waste Land.” So the Brussels festival took it on, and we first did it in a little discotheque, where I just got out of the audience, and just stood up and did The Waste Land. And then it was invited all over the world. It was invited to Ireland, to the Dublin Theatre Festival, where we played it in a munitions factory. We went to Canada, in Toronto: We played it in an old warehouse—now, a big huge block of flats on the shore of that lake. Then it went to New York and we played it on 42nd street in a disused old porno theater. The seats, mostly covered in plastic. We only allowed 200 people in, and we had porta-loos. It was very funny having people stepping out of limousines walking past the porta-loos to come and see The Waste Land.
And there’s a wonderful line in the poem, which is “A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal” And I remember one night looking out in the auditorium, and there sitting on the aisle was a rat. [Laughs.] Incredible, where the very landscape of the poem became more real than you could have expected it. That was really my first time properly being in New York. And I just loved it. I met a lot of people, and it blew me away what New York was. It was 1995—that’s a long time ago.
Now you’ll make me think I’ve got Alzheimer’s. But that is so long ago [Laughs.] in my 20s.
My Left Foot was amazing because it started shooting on a credit card. We still hadn’t got the funding for it. A bit like Killing Eve: Isn’t it great when something that you think is going to be a small niche thing becomes such a huge success. We hadn’t yet got our funding completely, but off we went for the film and it did so brilliantly well.