British actress Diana Rigg, 61, who has enjoyed popular fame and praise for classic roles, recently visited WGBH-TV to tape introductions for PBS'S Mystery! series. This is her 10th season.
A stage director you work with said you made a conscious decision to become a great actress.
Nobody can make a conscious decision to become a great actress - it's an impossibility. You can make a conscious decision to play great classic parts, and that's what I did - to play as many of them as I could while I was still fit enough to. Greatness was never on my agenda.
Did the widespread popularity of the '60s TV series The Avengers harm your career?
It never stopped me from doing anything, I don't think. The only area in which I've not been able to do anything I'm proud of is film. Perhaps that happened because I was a television star. There's a sort of reluctance to employ television stars in films. And it's quite interesting, because many, many years later, I think this still ever so slightly prevails. I would quite like to have done a film I'm really proud of. I did The Hospital many years ago, and although I very seldom watch myself, I did see it recently, and I felt, ugh, I could have done so much better.
Is there a great, memorable moment onstage?
There were times doing Medea that were sort of indescribable and maybe a couple of times in Phaedra, with those huge speeches. Something takes over, you know not what. And, dear God, you wish it would happen every night, but it doesn't. But when it does, it's a miracle.
Does it bother you that most Americans today know you only through Mystery!?
No. I have done mostly theater the last 10 years, and this reaches a wide audience, which is terrific. It keeps your name in front of a public, instead of "Whatever happened to Diana Rigg?" - which happens if you don't do films and just do theater.
Your name doesn't necessarily come to mind along with Maggie Smith's or Vanessa Redgrave's. Is that a regret?
No. I think one tries to go through life not putting oneself up here or down there. You do what you do, and you consider yourself incredibly lucky to be in a profession that you love and in which you have succeeded, and the degree of success is by the by. I think the actresses themselves don't think of it.
Why are the Mystery! prologues aired in America but not Great Britain?
I don't know; you probably don't need them. I mean, I'm talking myself out of a job. (Rigg has taped approximately 300 intros over the years, during semiannual visits to Boston.)
Are there roles you still yearn to play?
No! I have a relish for my work - I love it. But I don't have the hunger of the young. It's almost akin to envy in a way: "Oh, I'd love to do that. Wouldn't it be wonderful." I think as you get older, that falls away from you. Well, it did to me.
You look as though you could play much younger parts.
I'm not interested in playing younger than myself, although you do in the classics, necessarily. It's too much of a schlep, with all that makeup. In The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries [in which Rigg stars], I give the makeup 20 minutes, maximum. I was always like that - I couldn't be bothered.
So, surely, you never had any cosmetic surgery.
No. I'm too much of a coward. And in Britain, there's an emphasis, actually, on different qualities, not necessarily just what you look like.
What does being a dame of the British empire mean to you?
They just say, would you like to be a dame? Then you have this conversation with yourself: Why me, and what difference will it make? I suspect it was a mixture of two things. One, that I played largely classic roles in subsidized theater, which meant that I was, if you like, not taking from the theater but giving to it. And also that I sit on various boards and campaign and raise money for the arts. You get a medal, which the queen pins on. You put it on at really official functions, when it says at the bottom of the invitation, "Medals will be worn." What difference has it made? Absolutely none.
The British press routinely praise you for not becoming a "luvvie." What's that?
A very pejorative term the press use for actors and actresses who go about in groups of luvvies. They love each other a lot, and they call each other "luv" a lot, and the press like to paint them as self-indulgent airheads.
You've been called a cerebral actress. Is that intelligence ever a hindrance?
I think it is. There are occasions when you look at the text and think, "This won't do," but you can't rewrite it.
You were the first major actress to be nude onstage in London and New York. A good idea?
I was deeply uncomfortable. It brought the world press to the theater on opening night. The girl who took over for me refused to do it, and the play (Abelard and Heloise, which opened in 1970) still ran in the West End. Perhaps Keith Michell and I were patsies. It was ghastly . . . so cold, awful. But I learned: I learned never to do that again, thank you very much.