In a rehearsal studio on the Grays Inn Road, Geraldine James is talking about how it feels to fall in love for the first time. “Those extraordinary sensations you have, the crashing mistakes that you make. That feeling you have when you look at someone and go: wow, I fancy you.” It’s fair to say that, as a 72 year-old actress, these are not feelings she is often asked to recreate on stage or screen.
Yet here she is, starring in a new RSC production of As You Like It as Rosalind, Shakespeare’s beguiling heroine who, in the flush of first love, bedecks the Forest of Arden with poems declaring her devotion to Orlando. Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham Carter have all played the role in the early part of their careers. James is playing it in the latter part of hers. Not only that, she is the oldest actress ever to do so.
“On TV, you tend to get cast your age. You have no choice but to inhabit your aches and creaks. But with Rosalind I have to get over all that. No one has ever asked me to defy my age like this. It’s making me forget how old I am.” It’s a refreshing change for James who freely admits the parts one gets offered as a female actress shrink the older one gets. “I’m now in the grandmother stage,” she says.
It’s a bold move too on the part of the RSC which has cast almost exclusively over 70 year old actors for this revival – including Malcolm Sinclair and Maureen Beattie. The idea, says James, is that she and the rest of the cast are playing a troupe of elderly actors recalling a long-ago production of As You Like It in which they all appeared. “Our director Omar Elerian has conceived the play as a memory,” she says. “The production is about a group of people being reinhabited by their former selves. We are not bouncing around like 17-year-olds. But we are reimagining how we used to be.”
It’s also reminding her how love can still feel. “I rang my husband [the director Joseph Blatchley, with whom she has a daughter, Ellie] who is currently away, and told him I thought I missed him all the more because I was doing this play.” We meet just before a rehearsal in a tiny office in central London. James cuts a girlish figure, clutching her tattered script like a schoolchild, her hair falling in errant curls around her shoulders. “I still don’t know all my lines,” she confesses. “I tell you: it doesn’t get any easier.”
She is admirably gung-ho about the challenge ahead. “It’s a huge risk. Audiences could easily say, ‘What’s that 70-year-old doing up there?’ But I seem to have some strange compulsion to throw myself into the deep end.” James is one of our most versatile actresses with a career stretching back nearly five decades. She is indelibly associated with several landmark TV shows, including ITV’s 1984 era-defining mini series The Jewel in the Crown in which she starred opposite Charles Dance as the repressed young Englishwoman Sarah Langton during the dying days of colonial era India, and 1995’s Band of Gold, set in Bradford’s Red Light District.
She is instantly, reassuringly familiar, with a face you feel you have known all your life, yet at the same time she is not a star. “People don’t recognise me in the street. Or if they do, they think I’m a distant member of their family whom they can’t quite place. Which is great.” Certainly, it’s testimony to a career that has been reliably steady since her first TV appearance in 1976, playing a former girlfriend of Dennis Waterman’s affable Detective Carter in The Sweeney.
Her CV roves far and wide, from the 1982 film Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley to Portia opposite Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway in 1989, for which she was nominated for a Tony, to the 1990s courtroom drama Kavanagh QC with John Thaw via a bit part in Little Britain. What’s more, at an age when most actresses resign themselves to the occasional cameo in soap operas, James is as busy as ever. Her recent credits include Anne with an E, Netflix’s recent adaptation of Anne of Green Gables; the Britbox original thriller The Beast Must Die; the 2019 film version of Downton Abbey and the dystopian chiller Silo, currently on Apple TV.
Add to this the recent success of 60-plus actresses Michelle Yeoh and Jennifer Coolidge at this year’s Golden Globes and one has to ask: are we finally in a golden age for older actresses? “Actually, during the pandemic I panicked,” says James. “TV shows, particularly soaps, stopped casting anyone over 70 because they were deemed most likely to die.” Crikey, really? “Yes, really. Fortunately, I wasn’t yet 70 at the time and got a job on The Beast Must Die. But it’s certainly true that my generation, which includes Penelope [Wilton] and Harriet [Walter], are all still working.
“We owe it to Helen Mirren because she made it in Hollywood and she’s completely gorgeous. She made it OK to be old.” She thinks Hollywood is slowly shifting the dial on the sort of face it deems acceptable. “It used to be that you’d never get cast beyond a certain age if you hadn’t had a facelift. But so many of us refused to do that because we saw in those who did the disastrous results.”
Certainly, James has no need of a facelift: not because she radically defies her age but because she looks so comfortable within her own skin. She doesn’t think of herself as old – “whenever I do, I get a wobbly feeling in my tummy” – and has the freshness and spirit of someone half her age. “Sometimes I catch sight of myself in the mirror and think, ‘Who is that old bag?’ But I’m proud of my age.” Would she ever dare to bare a la Martha Stewart who recently became Sports Illustrated’s oldest cover star, flaunting a low-cut swimsuit? “Absolutely not. I’m far too insecure to show my bits like that. But good on her. How old is she? 81? Well, she looked bloody marvellous.”
Actors generally tend to be either flagrant exhibitionists who crave audience approval, or afraid and damaged people who seek refuge in parts that allow them to escape themselves. James is firmly in the latter camp. As a child growing up in the repressed 1950s, the world of make- believe became an essential replacement for the real thing. Her mother, who came over from Ireland in the 1930s to train as a nurse, was a chronic alcoholic. Home was a large rambling house in Maidenhead which James has compared to something out of Swallows and Amazons, but it was also a cold and silent place in which their mother’s condition was never discussed by neither James and her two siblings nor their emotionally remote cardiologist father.
“We’d come home from school and ask, ‘Does Mummy have a headache?’ That was our expression for what was going on.” Often they would hear the rustle of a paper bag from the bathroom and know their mother was in there with a bottle of gin. James was desperately lonely. “My younger sister had made an older friend who became a mother figure for her. I would sit in the nursery in the attic and watch her cross the garden to visit her and know she was going to be with this person who would be nice and who would look after her. I would sit in that dormer window and write reams of appalling poetry. And then I started writing plays and putting them on with friends. I created this fantasy world that got me through.”
At age 10, she was sent to the boarding school Downe House in Newbury. At 14, her parents divorced – her sister rang her at the school to tell her. Her father quickly remarried and, because his new wife refused to accept his three children, James and her brother and sister were very briefly made wards of court. In the end, James and her siblings remained with their mother. All the same, it sounds like something out of a particularly awful fairy story – and marked James so profoundly that when she married Blatchley in 1986, they made a promise as part of their wedding vows that they would never divorce.
But as a teenager, she was saved when a teacher cast her as the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! and she realised she had a talent for making people laugh. In 1973 she graduated from the Drama Centre London and went straight into three years of repertory theatre, playing “everything from Victorian melodramas to farce to tragedy”. In 1977, she was nominated for her first Bafta for her role as the deaf-mute sex worker Sandra X in Franc Roddam’s groundbreaking drama documentary Dummy. That performance also marked the first time her father accepted her decision to become an actress. “He’d been furious that he had wasted all that money on a private education,” James says. “But someone at the hospital where he worked had seen it on TV and said to him they hadn’t realised his daughter was deaf. He realised then that I might have some ability after all.”
Of course, James wouldn’t be able to play a deaf character now. “Absolutely not. You’d never get away with it. To be fair to Franc, he always said he hoped the part of Sandra would open the door for deaf actors. But as a non-deaf actor, that’s my job, to convince you. That’s partly what this production of As You Like It is about: can I convince you, as a 70-something, that I am falling in love for the first time?”
She voices despair at those who believe roles should only go to actors who share the character’s lived experience. “It upsets me, because who am I going to play, a 72-year-old from Berkshire? I get that there are all these different identity groups around these days which we didn’t have 20 years ago but I do feel there is huge confusion among younger actors. My husband who teaches at drama school is often faced by students who say they don’t want to play this or that character because they don’t agree with that character’s opinions. He says, ‘Excuse me but why did you want to become an actor if you are not interested in acting?’”
James cuts a bullish figure but her own early years were marred by the culture of the 1970s which seemed intent on casting women in roles that demanded they wear as few clothes as possible. “I used to flick through scripts to see how many times I’d be expected to take a bath. On set on The Sweeney I had to get into bed with Dennis, and the director made me cross the set naked. It was one of my first jobs and I tiptoed across in front of everyone, my arms across my chest.” It was an excruciating experience for a timid middle-class girl, barely out of drama school, who’d grown up unhappy and afraid within her own body. “I’ve been in an audition with a director who said, ‘I’ve got your head shots here, but would you mind taking off your clothes so I can see the rest?’ On one job, a musical, the writer came onto me in the dressing room. When I pushed him away, he said, ‘But why do you think I hired you in the first place?’ My daughter asks me now how on earth I put up with it. But it was the late 1970s, early 1980s. Sexism was tedious and boring – and everywhere.”
In 1995, she landed one of her biggest small screen roles, playing the sex worker Rose in Kay Mellor’s highly acclaimed Band of Gold. It was a comeback of sorts: she’d taken a bit of time off to have Ellie, and for a few years afterwards had struggled to pick up her career. “I found the transition in my 40s much harder professionally than when I was in my 60s,” she says. “It was as though directors didn’t know what to do with an actress that age. Now it’s easier for them: I’m just old.” Her 40s were also tough for a second reason: she and her husband spent much of it desperately trying to have another baby. “Both Joe and I had tricky relationships with our siblings, so after Ellie was born [in 1985] we agreed we’d wait five years or so before having another child,” she says.
Five years later, she was in New York performing in The Merchant of Venice when her agent suggested she try to crack Hollywood. “But Joe wanted me back home. We agreed I’d come back and we’d try for a second baby instead.” Nothing happened. “I was profoundly depressed. Absolutely shattered. For years it was all I thought about. I’d take or reject jobs on the basis of whether I thought I was likely to be pregnant. Eventually, I spoke to a gynaecologist in Manchester about IVF and he said that IVF can ruin a relationship. And Joe and I agreed that we couldn’t risk that happening.”
Thankfully, she and Blatchley are terrifically close to Ellie, an art therapist, who is now a mother of two. But for a long time, James felt terribly guilty that she was unable to provide her daughter with a sibling. “When she was about six she wrote an essay about herself and described herself as a ‘lonely child’ but with the ‘l’ crossed out. She’d meant to write ‘only’. Of course, she assured me that she wasn’t lonely at all but I still felt I’d cheated her. It was like a dagger to my heart. Goodness, I’m going to cry now.”
Did growing up with an alcoholic mother affect the way she approached motherhood herself? “No, not at all. I would never judge my mother. I completely understand how it happened. She was the sweetest thing who found herself in England in a world she didn’t understand. She got swept up by this flashy cardiologist at Guy’s Hospital and whisked off to this big house in the country and she became overwhelmed. She couldn’t cope. I wish to God we’d been in a more open society and in a more open family for her sake, because she endured it all in secret.”
For many years, she blamed her father with whom for years she had a very difficult relationship. “Thank God I spoke to him properly before he died. He said, ‘You have no idea how tough it was to live with that’. I said, ‘Of course I do, I was there’. But it wasn’t fair of me because it’s a bloody awful disease. Fortunately, her mother recovered thanks to AA and spent the last 10 years of her life sober. James has nothing but love and admiration for her now when she remembers her.
Today, James is a volunteer and campaigner for Nacoa, a charity for the children of alcoholics. “Although the Government has just cancelled their funding, which is absurd because they are a helpline. If I had had that helpline when I was a child instead of sitting in the attic writing poetry, I could have been speaking to them, saying, ‘It’s Christmas Day, Mummy isn’t well and I don’t know what to do’.” She comes across as a robust, pragmatic person, laughing off, for instance, the many times she’s been passed over for roles. “It happens all the time. It’s part of the business. God knows how many actresses they asked to do Rosalind before they got to me.” Yet part of her forever remains that little girl in the attic window. “Growing up with an alcoholic parent can make you a fragile person. But you learn how to appear the opposite. I’m a cancerian, I’ve a tough old shell. But I’ve had to learn to look completely in control. That’s acting.”