Lia Williams: ‘She’s funny, she’s complex, she’s fragile and strong. She’s all of woman, really’
Lia Williams tackled her role in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by researching Tennessee Williams – ‘because he is Blanche’
Lia Williams: ‘I base everything in research, because I love it and it fascinates me.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Lia Williams opens the door of her top-floor city-centre apartment, ushers us in and offers tea. Floor-to-ceiling windows are open. Breezes are wafting through. The tea is herbal, complete with bits of real leaves.
Slim and blonde and in her bare feet, her blue eyes the exact same shade as her soft wool shrug, Williams looks like a woman who has just been doing yoga – which indeed she has, in preparation for another night as Blanche DuBois in the Gate Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams played Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale by the same playwright last year, so the role of Blanche was, she says, a natural progression. “I’ve never been the kind of person who aspires to particular roles,” she explains. “What interests me is storytelling. I fell in love with the language of Tennessee Williams when I was about 17. I admire him as a writer because he’s so blisteringly honest. He’s prepared to put his raw emotional state on to a page – but with such poetry, and without asking for pity, or passing any kind of judgment on his characters.”
In love with DuBois
Williams says she’s in love with Blanche DuBois, as well. “The play is a cri de coeur for the delicate spirits out there who find the harsh realities of life too much to handle. There are many souls like that, and I guess I have always responded to outsiders or victims of society – tried to put that into my work in some way.”
But if Blanche is a tragic heroine, she is also life-affirming. “She can see the sparkly things. The magic. She’s funny, she’s complex, she’s fragile and strong. She’s all of woman, really.”
Blanche has been played by a parade of famous actors, from Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh through to Faye Dunaway and Cate Blanchett. None of which, says Williams, is relevant when it comes to getting into the skin of the character.
“I base everything in research, because I love it and it fascinates me,” she says. For this production she and her husband – the screenwriter Guy Hibbert – set off for New Orleans, and travelled up the Mississippi to Clarksdale, where her namesake lived.
“In my head I knew that if I could get into the spirit of Tennessee Williams, I’d be getting into the spirit of Blanche – because he is Blanche. He was Blanche. I knew that the closer I could get to him, the closer I’d get to the character.
“I met people who knew him, and I researched the accent and the people that knew and loved him, and the place where he lived with his grandfather. And I topped that up with all the reading I could find so that I was fully immersed in his world and in his mind.”
Impressions of the playwright
What do people say about the playwright? “Everybody feels as if they own a bit of him, somehow. Nobody speaks about Tennessee Williams in half measures. Nobody says, ‘Oh, he’s all right’ or ‘Quite nice’. They speak about his humour – which was quite raucous – and they believe he was crippled, both his sudden rise to fame with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, and then his massive critical fall after that. “I just” – she floats off into girly wistfulness – “wish he was alive. He’d be at my dinner table.”
Who else would be there? “Oh. Harold Pinter. And Frank McGuinness. Tom Murphy. Brian Friel. Beckett.” Hmm. You’d have to have lots of wine at this table. “And plenty of song, I imagine.” Williams laughs. Her laugh is the opposite of wistful and girly. It’s a dirty, Cockney laugh.
It erupts again when she recalls her last acting job in the theatre – a West End run of Pinter’s Old Times in which she alternated with Kristin Scott Thomas in the roles of Kate and Anna. “We did four performances of each character, and then switched,” she says. “On matinee days we played one character at the matinee and then another in the evening. And on Thursday we would toss a coin at six o’clock – and then rush for the wig.”
It wasn’t, she insists, a gimmick. “The play invited it. It’s a memory play, and memory is what you make it – so the idea that these two women could morph with each other was quite an artistic choice.”
That was another production that was carefully researched. Williams and Scott Thomas and Rufus Sewell, who played the leading man, had to go and live in a house in Norfolk together for a week. “And cook meals and go for walks and live in character and improvise. And we didn’t even know each other. Very bizarre.”
Williams took it in her stride. She has also taken to directing, beginning with an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, turning it into a short film starring Brendan Gleeson – and has earned a fistful of rave reviews for her production of McGuinness’s The Match Box, starring Leanne Best, in Liverpool and London.
An Irish-Afghan love story
Next spring she hopes to be filming her husband’s new screenplay for the BBC. “It’s a love story between an Irish girl and an Afghan refugee. A fable, really.”
Williams has worked with all the big names in contemporary theatre. Asked to single out her most important influence, she doesn’t hesitate. That would be Harold Pinter. “He taught me to be uncompromising with the truth,” she says. “That acting actually isn’t a mask – that you do it to reveal the truth. He taught me that when live theatre is done really well, it’s so affecting that it can actually change people’s lives. I think that’s what true storytelling is.”
A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Gate Theatre until September 21