Diana Rigg became internationally famous playing the karate-chopping swift-kicking Emma Peel on TV's The Avengers, but she does not like to be told that she is aggressive.
"That hurts," she says during a quick lunch at Sardi's. "I don't think I am." A few minutes later the waiter arrives with the food. He places it on the table and at once Miss Rigg turns to her lunch guest and commands "start!"
This is to be a no-nonsense encounter.
Miss Rigg was to open soon at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday as Celimene in the British National Theatre production of Moliere's The Misanthrope, in a new translation by Tony Harrison. The play is now set in De Gaulle's France of 1966 - an updating of 300 years from it's first performance.
In addition, Miss Rigg will be seen Thursday, Feb. 27, in a 2-hour CBS drama, In This House of Brede, James Costigan's play based on the Rumer Godden novel about a London businesswoman who decides to leave the material world and become a nun. Both characters are widows, but they have little in common besides that.
Miss Rigg is almost stereotypically British. Curt, snippy, nearly humorless, slightly officious, dry, private, practical, and tidy. She is 36 ("I never lie about that"), 5-feet 9-inches tall, and about as warm as February.
The only time she evidences a trace of vulnerability is when her 11-month-old and quite dead marriage comes up. She bows her head. "Oh, let's not get into what's right and who's wrong, shall we? I'm not likely to get married again."
Though she is wearing a tiger's tooth around her neck and dark, rust-colored nail polish, Miss Rigg does not look much like the agent Peel so many knew and loved and feared from the days of The Avengers, a cultish hit in the United States after similar success on the BBC in England.
"Well they always insisted I wear so much makeup for that show," she explains. "Lips up in the nostrils, that sort of thing. But I do think it was the first time a woman capable of looking after herself was portrayed in a television series. I suppose it was a success because it catered to a great number of sexual appetites - bondage, black leather, that sort of thing."
The show's "wit" and British "understatement" also helped make it a go, she believes, and she remembers the 2½ years she spent avenging as largely pleasant, "except that I was appallingly badly paid. I made less than a cameraman when we started."
Since then she has been offered "hundreds" of TV roles for women "with a gun in each hand," but has turned them down, having at least momentarily had enough of beating up bad guys. That is partly why she took the non-violent role of Diana in a situation comedy that lasted 13 weeks a year ago on NBC. She now refers to it as "that dreadful series in L.A."
"Whatever you're doing, you have to learn from it," says Miss Rigg. "I do believe in falling flat now and then, and I have managed to do it rather consistently. I don't take delight in being told I'm dreadful, but I believe that every bad thing has its plusses.
"Why did it fail? A lot because of me. I can't make any old thing funny. It was absolutely dreadful, and after it failed here, it also failed on the BBC. It was hard to take that. But still, I did learn things from it all. I had never had to learn 60 pages of dialog every 4 days before, and I had never played to a live audience as well as the camera at the same time."
An obvious independent, Miss Rigg is nevertheless, and refreshingly, not the trendy type who spends all her time thinking about what it means to be a woman.
"Oh, occasionally I come across one of those woman-to-woman things on British television," she says crisply. "Usually they are so monstrously bad that - well, they serve no purpose. And once you've heard the word 'cunt' on television, the shock value is over."
That was in England, not here.
"Oh last year I was invited to participate in the "Woman of the Year" luncheon in London. They asked if I would speak on 'The Importance of Being a Woman in 1974.' And I told them that I didn't think that there could be that much 'importance' to something that one has no choice about. No choice at all. I am a woman, I was born a woman, and that's that. 'Importance' implies choice. So I just went and 'et' and listened to a lot of nonsense. The only one who made any sense was a woman who said she was the only one there who had a certificate that proved she was a woman."
Jan Morris, perhaps?
"No, one of those athletes who had to have a chromosome count."
Miss Rigg notices her lunch partner has not finished his eggs Benedict and orders him to do so.
"On the economonic level," she continues, "I think the women's rights issue is incredibly serious. Of course I should be paid the same as a man. On the social level, I don't know. And on the sexual level, I think you just have to work it out for yourself."
David Merrick has teamed with the Kennedy Center to bring The Misanthrope to the United States. After its 4 weeks in Washington, the company will play 12 weeks in New York and then go back to England. Miss Rigg has met Merrick once and briefly. That, she says, is enough.
"My employer is my employer," she says. "I don't wish to get close to him. I do my job and get paid and that's it."
There'll always be an England. A packet of sugar suddenly lands on the table. It has been thrown by Alec McCowen, who plays Alceste and is Miss Rigg's costar in The Misanthrope. Miss Rigg nods to acknowledge him at another table and he chuckles. Though the play has been updated, Miss Rigg says, there has been no special effort to make it more relevant to the 70s.
"I don't think you have to find 'relevance' in every play."
Is she political? "Not really."
Would she like to direct? "Not yet."
Is she eccentric? "No, I'm boring. I have no hobbies and no superstitions."
Who would she most like to meet in the world? "Robert Graves. He's a writer, a poet and a Greek classicist. He's living on Majorca now and I think he's 70 now. In the photographs I've seen of him, he has a marvelous face like one of those Roman coins."
Nasty reviews don't bother her unless they seem personal. "I got a bad review from the dreaded John Simon in New York. It was Abelard and Heloise and Simon wrote about me in the nude scene - I can't quote it exactly, but this is about what he said - "Miss Rigg looks like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.' Well, fuck him! You can review my performance but not my physique. That's not what theater is about."
Such reviews inspired her to compile a book, with actors from Olivier down contributing the one meanest and funniest review they have ever received. She plans to call it No Turn Unstoned and says "the proceeds will go to charity."
Now she looks at her watch. Has to get back to the St. James Theater for a run through. Announces that lunch is over. Time for one more question. What will she be like in, say, 30 years?
"I shall be a dirty old woman," she says. And goodbye.