Last month, at a special cast and press screening for the film, we had the chance to talk to Harrier Walter about her role as Brutus. We asked her about her experience working under very unusual circumstances for an actor who has played every shakespearean heroine under the sun, and how this role differs from the rest of her body off work.
You have a long history with Shakespeare and also with Donmar Warehouse, how different is this play to what you’ve done before?
This in nothing like anything I’ve done before, there was so much permission to break out of my corset, as you like, to go straight to the heart of something. There’s something more direct about it, it might be to do with playing a man or it might be to do with having the freedom of not worrying what I look like because I was in prison garb and I wasn’t being seen as a professional actress putting on a polished performance. I was a prisoner who was free to make mistakes or act uncool or get over-excited. Because of our experience of the people we met in prison, the passion, the sense of “gosh, this is my chance”, their days are usually so routine led, they’re just a number and theatre is about the opposite of that, everyone is an individual in theatre and so just to hear your own voice speaking wonderful lines is already something so empowering that you’ll never forget it. So when we saw prisoners doing this stuff, their commitment, their passion and their imagination was so amazing that it inspired me. As a character in prison, I felt very liberated, I felt nobody was going to judge me. As a female actor, you’re forever having to present yourself in a personable likeable, pretty way, and to have all that kicked out of the way is fantastic.
Isn’t that the case for all women would you say? You always have to look a certain way and be presentable even when you don’t feel like it.
Exactly! Even if nobody is telling you, you’ve done it to yourself, and the first time I saw the play was on a tiny little laptop and it wasn’t quite finished, it was sent to me as a comment, and the first thing I thought was, I cannot bare to watch this, I look ninety years old, I have so many lines, I’m screwing my face up. That’s all I saw, and when I was playing it I didn’t think about that at all.
Because you’ve been with this project since 2012, how do you feel it has developed, did you change anything to the way you play Brutus?
I learnt more about the character, you always do, sometime it doesn’t constitutes a major change that’s very visible from the outside, it’s more pennies dropping deeper and deeper. I think the first time around, I visualised a particular man in my head and there was an element of imitation which is what actors do sometimes. I mean, you hope to go beyond imitation, but you start off with somebody in your head that you’re trying to be like, and then you come back to it in rehearsal and deepen it and it becomes more organic. So really I saw things over the first run that I couldn’t really change because we’d fixed it. I saw things about what it’s like to be a man, a man who has to be a leader, he has to be a moral leader, so I suddenly started to understand what that was like and I realised that part of the point of acting is that you empathise with your character, you get into their skin and your starts thinking like them and feeling like them.
Do you feel like you were playing a woman playing a man? I got the impression that you were playing a rather butch woman playing a man, was that deliberate?
Hmm I wasn’t really trying to be butch at all, but I can see that’s how it comes across, I’ve got very short hair, I talk with a deep voice and I’m older than the other women, so you might think, she’s a slightly older lesbian or something like that in a prison situation. I think if you try to play a man you might come over that way, and the slim difference between a woman in a prison posturing as a man and role-playing as a man, which happens in prison, there’s a lot of gender-play that take place within a close prison community. In my mind I didn’t make that decision, it wasn’t relevant. What is difficult to answer is at what point I felt I was a woman, and what times I felt I was Brutus.
Can you talk a bit about who came up with the idea to film it first? Did it come from you or Phyllida?
I think it was her initiative, it’s not the first time I thought about playing men’s parts, people had said why don’t you play Hamlet or why don’t you play Richard II, and I usually just thought, well….I need somebody to get behind that, I can’t just initiate that, because that would be a vanity exercise. And that’s very female isn’t it. So that was what stopped me over the years, and then Phyllida and I had worked on Mary Stuart together and had become friends, and so at first it was just meetings for coffee and then she was emailing me saying “I can’t get out of my head to have an all female company because the balance is completely skewed against women”. That’s how it started and because I was thinking along those lines too, I just needed someone like her to say let’s do it.
It’s surprising that it hasn’t been done very often before.
Well there are companies who had something similar, I mean not a lot but it has been done before, and I don’t want to discredit those people who have done it before by wiping out their effort. There are various companies in America that do all female stuff and there was a group of women during the war who put on all women Shakespeare plays, there were usually upper middle class, educated women, but they put on those plays because they saw the need to say those lines in a time of war, so it’s s not a new idea. What is new I feel with a lots of women’s achievement is like the world lets them have one go then says “ look well done, you’ve done it, you’ve proved you can do it, now go away and go back to what you were doing before” and there was something in that fact that made it very important to do another one to capitalise on the transformation in the audience, because they started off wary and by the end they were transformed by the experience.
I know that Phyllida was very reticent about the whole “theatre at the cinema” thing, did you have the same reservations?
Yes I did, actually it was me, early days who said we’ve got to film this, because I’d had a conversation with somebody who worked in prisons a lot, and they said you’re not going to be able to physically get a big group of people to go into many prisons, there’s so much bureaucracy, it’s really difficult to get all those people together at the same time, get them vetted etc…and the prisoners are only allowed a certain amount of time in a room together, so I thought well maybe we could film it and put it out there. And I’d also in my time at the RSC had people saying “I’m a school teacher, I want to show my kids all this stuff but it doesn’t exist on film and where can I find it” this was before NT Live. So I was the one who was pushing, let’s film it, and then years later other people had been saying it so she started saying why not. And then I start going “please don’t put a close up camera on me” [laughs]. So the first time I saw it I was in shock, but then because you can see all the audience around it’s so obvious that it’s a stage production, my nervousness was always about acting for the back row of the stalls and how big and loud you have to be. I just felt that you could see the overall action, you could see the audience reaction, you could see the whole thing. I think it’s just been brilliantly shot from that point of view.
Can you talk a little bit about the women being depicted here, a lots of them are from different ethnic and class backgrounds, was that deliberate?
It’s just the truth of a prison, in most countries it’s mostly the working class who are in prison. In America a huge proportions of the population is black, and in our country a lot of asian people and people from different parts of the country are there too. I know Phyllida wasn’t doing it by quota, she wanted it to be open to everybody and then the best people for the part she would chose. And you know….it taught me something and made me more modest that people who had not had access to this sort work before were able to do it so well. And it opened my eyes even further, but I also thought it became very believable, otherwise you wonder why are those people in prison if they’re so good at Shakespeare if they’ve got posh voices.
And finally what would want you like people to take away from this project?
I want them to cry like I did because it’s so moving, it’s transformative and I can’t sum it up because I think people will go away and think about it for weeks about what it exactly it was that moved them. It’s partly that Shakespeare’s language is so brilliant and the play is so “politically now”, and it’s partly because you’re seeing these very vivid people taking on these characters who otherwise might be all a bit uniform wearing togas [Laughs].
Julius Caesar is released on July 12th – and you can read our review of the film here.