On the Phone With Lindsay Duncan

On the Phone With Lindsay Duncan

Lindsay Duncan. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Lindsay Duncan may not be the household name in this country that her co-stars John Lithgow and Glenn Close in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, currently running on Broadway thru Feb. 22, are, but in her native Britain she is at the very top of the acting heap. Her entry on imdb.com alone lists 100 movies, TV shows and series, including a tasty turn as an acerbic drama critic in Oscar contender Birdman. (For six vintage Duncan performances, see the list following the Q&A.) Onstage, the classically trained actress—she studied at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama—runs the gamut from Shakespeare to Pinter and has won two Olivier Awards for Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1987) and Private Lives (2002). Both shows transferred to Broadway, earning her Tony Award nominations for Best Actress for each and the award itself for the latter. A Delicate Balance marks only her fourth time on Broadway, though she has occasionally appeared Off-Broadway and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. All the more reason to catch this actor’s actor now in the juicy role of Claire, the alcoholic sister in Albee’s spellbinding family drama. It may be another 12 years before she returns.

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted on Dec. 4, 2014, two weeks after A Delicate Balance opened to rave reviews. Duncan’s unmistakable voice over the phone was as honey smooth as always. What was surprising (and delightfully so) was her warm, self-deprecating and ready laugh.

Francis Lewis: Welcome back to Broadway: It’s been a while.

Lindsay Duncan: Broadway is never going to be a regular feature of [my] life. It’s been a wonderful one for me, and I’ve been really lucky. The reason I’ve been here before is because I’ve come with British productions that already had success, and it was thought a wider public should see them. Apart from an Off-Broadway production I did years ago, this is the only homegrown American production I’ve done, certainly the first one on Broadway. So, it’s unusual in that respect, and is not going to happen very often.

FL: What about Balance appealed to you?

LD: I’ve never done an Albee play professionally before. It’s something we do, certainly in my time, at drama school. Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was something I attempted briefly at about age 20—with not a clue. I’m really lucky to have a chance to explore Albee and particularly this play, which I think is a great play, a really important play. I think it has passed the test of time. It’s not the easiest play, but it’s still got something to say. And that’s the kind of work I like to do, especially in the theater. In terms of the material, it’s my kind of thing and I’m relishing it.

FL: Is getting into the American psyche a challenge for you, as a British actress?

LD: I’ve done a range of American works. I did the first production of The Cryptogram, the Mamet play [in London, 1994]. Tennessee Williams is almost a world of its own. Very, very particular. [Duncan’s Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earned her the 1988 Evening Standard Award]. I’ve done Robbie Baitz [Three Hotels]. With Albee, I find the stuff he deals with very familiar. It’s all the things we struggle with in the modern world even though it was written in the ’60s. It packs a very relevant punch even now about complacency and how we keep it at bay. What we use to do that. And, of course, [the characters are] a sophisticated, privileged bunch of people. The family in the play, on one level, is a compete mess but they have strategies to manage their anxieties about life.

FL: You’ve starred in several Harold Pinter works. Has that in any way prepped you for Albee?

LD: I’ve done quite a lot of Pinter, and even though he and Albee are completely different writers, I feel quite at home in the territory because Harold [also] dealt with turmoil and the way you deal with it and the endless threats that we live with in our daily lives, the fears. How we deal with just living a life. I feel quite at home with that. Of course, I have to deal with doing an American accent and I’m very sensitive about that because I’m a British actress coming here and I feel very privileged to be asked to do this on Broadway. Yes, I have to measure up. Otherwise it would be unforgivable. I started work before I came over and had more help from a wonderful dialect teacher here. Albee is such a particular and such an incredibly sophisticated writer and in total command of his language. You just have to pay attention to what he’s written. You follow the language and you will learn a great about what you’re supposed to do as an actor. But his writing comes before everything else.

FL: How would you define his “voice”?

LD: Like all the greats, he has his own unique voice. Yes, he’s an American writer but some of it’s quite heightened. Not so much my character Claire, but Agnes, the part that Glenn plays. Agnes is a highly articulate woman and her speeches are quite dazzling. He gives her total command of language. You know it’s American, yes, but it’s Albee before it’s American. It’s also very WASP, not mid-Atlantic because that would lower it a little bit.

FL: Do you ever find yourself, now that you’re here in New York, testing out your American voice in a restaurant or a shop, just to see if you can “pass”? Or do you leave that at the stage door?

LD: Yes, I’d feel really weird. I can see [the disconnect] when people come backstage after a performance and I go, “Hello.” [said in Duncan’s plumiest manner, amid much laughter] And I’ve got long hair, but short hair in the play. It’s quite good sometimes because I can slip out [the stage door]. It’s certainly nice to transform [onstage]. With fantastic writing, to some extent, you could just sit in a black box. If you commit to the writing, something will happen. But we’re doing a proper production in a gorgeous theater, I have to say.

FL: You play the accordion onstage as Claire …

LD: I think you’re being generous. [much laughter] It was terrifying for me. But now I’m terribly fond of my accordion. Like a little friend. I am very happy to be onstage with it. But let’s not get carried away. It’s a source of much mirth among my friends. I’ve just been sent a photograph of a naked accordion–playing man. I’m keeping everyone very amused.

FL: You and Glenn Close share a famous character, the Marquise in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Do you ever talk about the Marquise?

LD: No, not at all. I don’t know if it’s delicate. I did the play and she the film. She’s filled up our Green Room with photos of everybody in other things, and she found a photo of Alan Rickman and me and put that in a frame with a photograph of her and John Malkovich, one on top of the other. So, we have got a reference in our Green Room to the Marquise, which is rather nice.

FL: Sounds cozy.

LD: Yes, but we haven’t lit a fire yet. But you never know.

FL: Your résumé goes on forever, including masses of TV work. Do you ever reject anything?

LD: I’ve very lucky to be in a position to be offered work, but I do turn down a lot. Part of your career is formed by the things you don’t do. I turn down a great deal of theater now. I’ve done so much, and it’s meant an enormous amount to me, but it’s not a great way of life. I find it quite punishing. It completely takes over one’s life. So, I do less and less of that.

FL: Doing A Delicate Balance may put a damper on your Christmas then?

LD: Absolutely. We have a matinee on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, but then we have two shows the day after. The same at New Year’s. So, it’s a slightly sad time [laugh] away from my home and friends. I won’t be having the Christmas season I would be having at home and that’s quite sad really. But the backstage has been decorated already with lots of Christmas things because you start early over here. There will be lots of jollity at the theater, I’m sure, but it won’t be home.

FL: Where are you staying in the city?

LD: In the West Village.

FL: Is that where you usually like to stay?

LD: Well, I have stayed here a lot, perhaps the last three or four times. I’m very curious to investigate other areas. I would have liked to try the East Village or even Brooklyn. But because the play is so demanding I thought I needed to be somewhere I know, and it’s great. There are great restaurants here. I know [the neighborhood]. I can run my life here. We’ve got friends in the building. And I’m near the High Line. I’m near Hudson River Park, so I can go for walks there. A good bracing walk by the river. I love doing that.

A Delicate Balance, John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200. The limited engagement ends Feb. 22.

Editor's Picks: In leading or supporting roles, Lindsay Duncan is as riveting on screen (small and large) as she is onstage. From scores of available options, here’s a list of six indispensable Duncan videos. There’s not a repeat performance among them. Buy, rent, download, stream or head to the local multiplex for

  1. Rome, the HBO series in which her character, aristocratic Servilia of the Junii, gives as good as she gets.
  2. Le Week-End, a grown-up romance, set in Paris, co-starring Jim Broadbent
  3. Oliver Twist, a deliciously twisted take on the Dickens novel. A friend of mine once congratulated Duncan on her performance as the vitriolic Elizabeth Leeford. “I don’t know where that came from,” she said, somewhat astonished that she had been able to pull off the intensity with which her character personified evil.
  4. Shooting the Past, an outstanding collaboration with writer/director Stephen Poliakoff
  5. Traffik, the original mini series about the drug trade.
  6. And in movie theaters now, Oscar-nominated Birdman in which Duncan is Tabitha Dickinson, a fearsome New York Times drama critic.