August 1973: Oui

Conversation With Diana Rigg

It is difficult not to fall into the pathetic fallacy of comparing her with a cat. Sinuous and seemingly eternal and totemic, Diana Rigg somehow makes men's teeth hurt with desire. Distant yet available, she is, of course, the actress who captured and enraptured American audiences through her portrayal of the leather-clad Mrs. Emma Peel on the popular British-made television series The Avengers, a triumphal blend of tasteful S/M and counterspying. She is also a first-rate Shakespearean actress. Her auburn hair is an enticement, her personality that of a scarlet pimpernella. At the age of 35, she is single, libbishly female, a primal performer. She has just finished an eight-year affair with a married man (producer Philip Saville) and has no intention of ever marrying. Diana Rigg asserts her lithe spirit of independence constantly. The first eight years of her girlhood were spent in India, where her father was a civil engineer. She attended a boarding school, Fulneck Girls School, in England. At the age of 17, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she gathered poise and acting power, but her offstage escapades nearly got her ousted. After her graduation in 1957, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon. A dozen roles in touring repertory followed. Her favorite was King Lear's passionate daughter Cordelia, of whom Lear says, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless child." In 1966, Diana joined The Avengers, playing a spy heroine as hip and sexy as James Bond. The part fit her as tightly as her black catsuits; she put out her claws to the rogues' gallery of malfeasors, but purred seductively as her associate's cool consort. When she was replaced in the prime-time series, her fans followed her into the reruns. After The Avengers, Diana toured the U.S. in Abelard and Heloise, a kitschy dramatization of the 15th-Century tale of two ill-fated lovers. Her feature films include On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which she played to George Lazenby's James Bond; The Hospital, in which she lent a sympathetic ear to George C. Scott's portrayal of impotence; and a horror movie with Vincent Price called Theatre of Blood. She played for the first time with Britain's National Theatre in 1971, in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. It was a black comedy. Diana sang Shine on, Harvest Moon in no more clothing than a fish net. At the end of this season with the National Theatre, she will go to Hollywood to make a television sitcom about an English girl trying to survive and flourish in America. Then she plans to return to the legitimate boards, for she is a theater actress first. But she sees the strategic advantage gained by acting as a lady for all seasons.

OUI: Are you proud of acting?

RIGG: Yes, I am. I never apologize for the fact, and I come from Yorkshire, and it's not easy to be an actress when you come from Yorkshire. My mother's proud of me. At least I think she is. I think she's proud of me because I've succeeded, not because I'm an actress. I dig family.

OUI: Do you want children?

RIGG: Yes, I do.

OUI: Which leads us to the obvious question -

RIGG: How am I going to do it? I don't know.

OUI: Do you think it's possible to get married and stay married?

RIGG: You're supposing I'll get married?

OUI: Let me put it this way: do you think couples are possible over a long period?

RIGG: Yes, I do, but I think they're only possible if each person is prepared to improvise and approach the relationship - it's almost impossible - without preconceived ideas about what she wants from the man, or what the man wants from her or what they think they should want from each other.

OUI: What kind of preconceived ideas?

RIGG: Oh, Christ, the list is endless, really. That one should be domestically infallible; that one should be sexually receptive; that one should be compliant; that one should be an accessory after the fact of a husband. These are the sort of obstacles you come across, and I'm not a particularly aggressive liberationist. To a large extent, I think I've got over my preconceived ideas about relationships. I'm much happier now and, I think, much, much more whole than I ever was before. One trusts that, instead of going downhill, things are going to get better. I don't think I'm so concerned now with what should be.

OUI: So how do you see having a baby?

RIGG: I don't know. It's always rather ridiculous and hypothetical to talk about it. I have not done it. I am not married. I see no reason to get married, so far. So how do I see having a baby? I don't know. Ask me when I've done it or when I'm on the point of doing it. It's easy enough to conceive. Thereafter...The most painful part of my eight-year relationship was living with Philip and knowing that it had to finish. That was really agony. Once the split has happened, life was comparatively easy.

OUI: You took the first step?

RIGG: Oh, yes, I had to, even though I think he would have realized it sooner or later. But we both failed. Unquestionably we both failed, and it was facing up to the fact of failure which was really extremely hard. By way of softening the blow, I told him before I left that there was nobody else. The conversation went as follows: "I have to go, I don't think it's working anymore." "I am very insulted." "There is nobody else." "I am very, very insulted." A most wonderful conversation, it sums up the whole male attitude towards this. For "insulted," read "bewildered and hurt, but I'm not going to let you know."

OUI: You ask yourself, "How am I going to get it right this time?"

RIGG: You can't get it right, there's no point when you can finally say, "I got it right." Of course you get it right day by day, at times. We got it right, but eventually we got it wrong. There's no ultimate right. To have survived eight years together means you got it right at some point. That's more than a lot of people do.

OUI: In the old days, whenever the old days were, people got together thinking it was for life.

RIGG: They got it wrong from the beginning in the old days.

OUI: Maybe, but at some level most people would still like it to be for life.

RIGG: That's an ideal, and if it occurs, then it's well-nigh a miracle. Which doesn't mean that it can't occur. It can, but on average it doesn't. There are other people who can make it work by sheer willpower, the sheer fact that they will not accept defeat. It's just like anything else - familiarity is a very strong pull.

OUI: As one gets older, one doesn't want to have to go through all the old routines again with each new person. Finally, perhaps, one falls exhausted into somebody's arms and stays there. How do you feel about being old? Say, 60 years old?

RIGG: Sixty? I look at myself and sometimes I think, oh yes, it's all happening, because there are more wrinkles and so on. I haven't had children so my body hasn't gone yet. But it will. I hope to be rather an adventurous old lady, if not a naughty one.

OUI: What frightens you about old age?

RIGG: Nothing really, except physically not being able to walk as fast, or move at all: the possibility of being physically dependent on something - a wheelchair or a walking stick - or somebody else. I think that would hit me hardest of all. Recently I pulled a muscle in my back, and I was in hospital and I felt absolutely betrayed. I did it in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. I'd thought my body was utterly dependable. I mean, I'd had colds and all that stuff, but for the thing to actually seize up on me was ridiculous. I felt very angry and betrayed by this thing, which I couldn't even feel. It was just there, seized up. I couldn't even stand up straight. Quasimodo. After a fortnight, I came straight back to work.

OUI: Do you think it's easier to grow old here in Britain than in other places? America, for example? I'm thinking of that certain kind of American woman who uses every device to keep looking young.

RIGG: I think there's a point at which preserving yourself becomes ridiculous. There's a different attitude, which is that the face is - just as the mind and the spirit are, one hopes - the product of 60 year's experience, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. There's no reason to be goddamn ugly about it either. The odd face lift I don't think is a bad idea, but that very sort of alabaster rigidity those women have is frightening and terrible and the unsexiest thing in the world.

OUI: Have you always thought of yourself as beautiful?

RIGG: I don't think of myself as beautiful. I can be when I'm made up onstage, I know I can be very beautiful. But I don't think of myself as beautiful during the day. Ever.

OUI: Well...

RIGG: Attractive but not beautiful.

OUI: Who's really beautiful in your eyes?

RIGG: Women? Dominique Sanda. I think someone like that is exquisite.

OUI: And men?

RIGG: Fellers? It changes. I don't ever have one fixed idea. I used to hate redheaded men until I had a redheaded lover and I was really turned on by redheads for a long time. It's just...whatever's going.

OUI: What do you think about America?

RIGG: I'd have to steel myself to live there even for six months of the year. I think it's an incredibly difficult place to live in a civilized fashion. And by civilized I mean ignoring the facility of everything there and creating something for yourself. Not accepting everything that is shoveled at you out of whatever machine you put a quarter in. And it's the same for the mind as it is for the body over there, exactly the same. Machines make things happen.

OUI: Where did you live in the States? Presumably California. New York?

RIGG: I lived in the Village in New York City. I took Tom Eyen's flat and had a smashing time. Read all his pornographic literature in bed. Wow!

OUI: Did it turn you on?

RIGG: Oh, some of it, yes. Great. But America - in New York everyone said, "You've got to live in an apartment block with a front door and a porter." Bullshit. I lived in the Village and I used to walk around the streets. No problem. The Women's House of Detention was just at the end of my street and I used to walk around it as a free woman. And the women inside would look out in a fury of impotence at being locked away. They could see. Nothing could be worse, could it? At least in a prison like Dartmoor your surroundings match your situation. You look out of the windows and everything is barren. But there they were, looking out of the window, and they could see everybody free, doing what they wanted. That's real pain and torture. Privation.

OUI: What about California?

RIGG: What about it? You use it as it uses you. You try and rise above it. I lived at the "Shitty Château," the Château Marmont. Do you know it? Lovely place. Very seedy, indeed. Once upon a time it was the chic place to stay in Los Angeles, and it is, in fact, built like a château, on Sunset Strip with CYNTHIA AND HER ENORMOUS CATERPILLAR playing down the road and porno movies and porno sex shops and all that stuff around, and then there's the château, which has an air of faded gentility about it. Today, some die-hard English actors and actresses still stay there, like Angela Baddeley. But before, it was Garbo's smartarse bit.

OUI: Do you have a favorite place?

RIGG: Ibiza, I think. We have a farmhouse there in the back of beyond. There's no electricity, and one works. I scrub the tiles and make my own wax and paint the walls. I read a great deal. It's a good life. I couldn't bear to live there forever, but it's a good antidote.

OUI: What are you reading at the moment?

RIGG: Sappho, in translation. Haven't you read her? I'd like to do a show based on her and what she represented. She settled on the island of Lesbos, but the important thing about her isn't that she was a dyke. She celebrated love and loving; she loved men and she also loved women. This is a concept which we've absolutely lost in the 20th Century because everything has to be categorized by male and female and anything in between is suspect, subject to one law or another, whether it's social disapproval or an actual law. And I'd like to examine that area between male and female, simply to do it as a celebration, a celebration of loving. The women writers we have - such as Edna O'Brien, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer - couldn't be more feminist and more masochistic. I want to get the female statement away from masochism. Extremism is exactly what I would like it not to be about, neither the extremes of male nor female. I would like to walk into that land that nobody seems interested in, where loving matters, whether it be a man or a woman. It's much more positive than not loving.

OUI: We haven't talked much about your popular television series, The Avengers.

RIGG: I don't see any point anymore, really. Of course, it's still running in America, and I still get letters from some very odd people. It's curious. Apart from the fellows - or the women - who obviously dig the foot-fetishism part of it or the black leather of the whipping, I get letters from professors and university students who just say how much they loved it and consider it a much more literate series than anything they get handed out. Therefore they think of me as an intelligent person.

OUI: So it's not just the raincoat brigade.

RIGG: No. Amazing.

OUI: Will your new series be your television comeback?

RIGG: I'm definitely doing it for only six months. I want to do six months of frenzied activity in front of the television cameras in America, which is what you do if you want power - commercial power, and I want to come back to the National Theatre and translate that power in terms of theater tickets. When I talk about power, I don't mean a situation in which you dictate to other people - I wouldn't know what to do with that sort of situation - but power at the box office expressed in tickets because people want to come and see you. Sir Laurence Olivier does the same thing - look at him in that Sleuth film.

OUI: Why do you get more power from television than from making movies?

RIGG: Primarily because I'm more successful in television than I ever have been in movies - I don't know why - and secondly because more people see it.

OUI: But doing a television series like The Avengers must become like an assembly line at times.

RIGG: Yes, but this would be different. During The Avengers I drew the line once and insisted on going back to Stratford-on-Avon to do Twelfth Night, and I was pursued by my producers, who said, "Come back and do another 40 episodes," and I liked the idea of doing Viola and Emma Peel at the same time. But this would be different because it's a taped show in front of a live audience, which is fascinating and quite unlike filming. You work reasonable hours, rehearsing the first four days of the week and taping on the fifth. Quite civilized.

OUI: The alchemy of the relationship between an actress and her director, usually a man, is mysterious. Perhaps it was Peter Brook who first confronted you with the problem of power between an actress and her director, when you played Cordelia in his King Lear in 1964. Could you tell us about it?

RIGG: Most actors and actresses at some point desire and feel they need a Svengali, and it happened for me with Peter Brook. I felt he had what I needed. All you need is one man convinced of his power and one woman willing to place herself utterly and submissively in that power. So it worked rather well up until the final dress rehearsal, which, if I recollect all right, was at Stratford-on-Avon and went on until about three in the morning. I stayed behind afterwards, and I said to Peter, "It's not working, I can't do it, it's really not working." "No," he said, "you're right, it isn't."

OUI: Why wasn't it working? You said a Svengali relationship was what you felt you needed.

RIGG: Yes, I know, but inevitably one has to be absolutely, totally convinced that his ideas can fuse onto you, that the transplant can take. I didn't, I rejected it. I deeply, subconsciously rejected it, so it didn't work at all. Nothing is more conducive to the truth than doing a dress rehearsal the eve of the first night. Peter gave me carte blanche to do more or less what I wanted, but I didn't have the courage. Round about the fifth week of playing, I hit on something and stuck to it and I couldn't move away or progress. It was a very limited sort of performance and I really was deeply apologetic. Peter's a very incredible man. Very strong. Utter, unquestioning belief - not my scene at all. I suppose I thought at that stage I'd like to be a believer and I found I couldn't. After that experience with Peter Brook, my attitudes towards a director changed. I suddenly realized that one had to contribute, that in fact one's survival depended on a contribution - mine did, anyway - and it was up to the director to simply select, to lay it out. You don't present him with a blank sheet, like I did with Peter Brook. I fell under the spell of those baby-blue eyes of his.

OUI: Did you find him attractive?

RIGG: I find any man who is intellectually ahead of me attractive. That's the first thing that attracts me, actually.

OUI: What's the second?

RIGG: Basically, how little he cares to exercise this power of his.

OUI: What kind of part makes you feel good?

RIGG: Comedy.

OUI: Always?

RIGG: Yes, always. I think that dramatic roles - not just Lady Macbeth - can give you a sort of quiet satisfaction if you think it's been strong. But comedy really makes you feel you can go on to the goodies afterwards. That's true whether it's Emma Peel or Adriana or anything. You flow, you're much more liquid, so you're really beautiful. Comedy's a beginning; Lady Macbeth is an ending.

OUI: What do you usually do after a performance when you feel good?

RIGG: It's impossible to do anything. In the theater, they do work you incredibly hard. You lead a pretty disciplined life because you have only so much energy and you have to conserve it. You have a 10:30 A.M. rehearsal, followed by an evening performance. This is the first week I've had any time off during the day. Marvelous.

OUI: It's harder than working on a film?

RIGG: Yes, but it's nicer, I suppose because in the end you are responsible for what you do. Nobody can muck about with it. If anybody's going to fail, it's going to be you. You don't have someone making you up. You make yourself up; you get yourself together; you go onstage. You're responsible for your movements all the time. You don't have a second assistant hovering around waiting for you. You've been to film studios, you know how revoltingly they treat you. They don't mean to, but they just think you are totally irresponsible because you're an actress.

OUI: About your films, what was it like working with George C. Scott in The Hospital?

RIGG: He's an incredible actor, absolutely smashing to work with because he wants to get it right. Very businesslike. Bloody frightening because he's so businesslike, and yet at the same time you see those tears running down the cheeks on cue. You think, Jesus, that can't all be just acting.

OUI: Generalization time. What do you feel about American men?

RIGG: They're dreadful lovers. The ones I've had were appalling.

OUI: That's going to sell a lot of copies of this magazine in America -

RIGG: And, in fact, one situation does prevail in America that makes life incredibly difficult - and, as I've said, I'm not particularly women's libbish - and that is, if you elect to live alone and be alone, which is what I did there, with the odd...escapade here, there, and everywhere, then you are immediately suspect because you are predatory and socially dangerous, right? The wives don't like it. So I eventually had to take a feller around, like a handbag. He was very beautiful and not particularly bright, but he was a convenience, and I used him as such. I wouldn't dream of doing that - I wouldn't have to do it - in England. I wouldn't have to do it anywhere else in the world. But in America I did. So, I thought, right, I'll play that game.

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