The Oscar-winning legend and former member of U.K. Parliament, currently starring in Broadway's revival of 1994 Edward Albee drama 'Three Tall Women,' also reveals why she turned down the role of Bond's M and why "my worst day is my day off."
"I was never a star," declares Glenda Jackson of her storied film and theater career. But such dismissals are belied by the theatergoers flocking to see her Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee's 1994 drama Three Tall Women, which has grossed nearly $8 million so far.
Jackson's return to the Great White Way at the age of 82 is a certified event for many reasons. The two-time Academy Award winner (1970's Women in Love and 1973's A Touch of Class) — whose other notable credits include the films Sunday, Bloody Sunday; Mary, Queen of Scots; Hedda; and the television miniseries Elizabeth R, for which she won two Emmys — stepped back from acting in the early 1990s to enter politics. She represented Hampstead and Highgate in Parliament for 23 years, until her retirement in 2015. And to some, perhaps her greatest-ever performance is a 2013 speech she gave after the death of Margaret Thatcher, bitterly decrying the late prime minister for treating "vices like virtues" and favoring greed over compassion.
After leaving government, Jackson returned to performing with a vengeance, playing the title role in a gender-bending production of King Lear at London's Old Vic. In typical Jackson fashion, she disdained the rapturous reception when she came onstage to receive the Evening Standard Award for her performance. "Oh, come on, we don't do standing ovations in England!" she chided the crowd.
Her road to New York started with producer Scott Rudin, a fan since he saw her onstage in 1965 in Marat/Sade. Though she'd turned down a role he offered in the 2006 film Notes on a Scandal (eventually played by Judi Dench), she couldn't resist Albee's "A," a flinty woman facing the end of her life. Playing opposite Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill as younger versions of her character, Jackson delivers such a spellbinding turn that she's got a virtual lock on the Tony. Jackson, who's long divorced with one son, Dan Hodges, a newspaper columnist, has a well-earned reputation for not suffering fools gladly. But she is friendly and engaging — and as passionate about liberal politics as ever — while chatting with THR at an Upper East Side tea shop on the day her Tony nomination (her fifth; no wins) was announced.
What did you think of Three Tall Women when you first read it?
I'm ashamed to say, I didn't even know the play existed until Scott Rudin sent me a copy. I thought, "This is a radio play!" There's almost no physical movement. But he was a bloody good writer! The simplicity of the words [Albee] chooses to use … it's a big trap, actually. Because he uses certain words a lot. But he puts them in a different place. There is an energy to the play, but you have to dig it out. And I think we have found that energy in our production. You hardly ever get to act with other actresses. Certainly not in contemporary stuff. Usually there's only one good woman's part. To have the opportunity to work with actresses of this caliber was a big thing for me. I'd seen Laurie's work on television, and she can play anything. I didn't know Alison, but I think she's just marvelous in this play. It's the underwritten part that she's playing. And she absolutely nails it.
Did you have trouble relating to the character?
One of my rules of engagement is that you cannot judge the character you play. You have to see the world through their eyes. And she saw her world very clearly. (Chuckles.)
You starred in a 1989 Los Angeles production of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by the writer. What was it like to work with him?
He was completely closed off. I don't think I ever saw him smile.
When you first returned to acting — after decades off the stage and screen — instead of easing back in, you chose King Lear.
The Old Vic approached me, wanting me to do something. I didn't like the play they wanted me to do. I said I wanted to play Lear, and they said fine. What was interesting to me was that nobody ever raised the issue of a woman playing a man's part. Not at all. One of the things that I found useful was that the older we get, the more gender barriers begin to fray.
You've had an incredibly varied film career. Not too many actresses could have had successful collaborations with both director Ken Russell (Women in Love, The Music Lovers) and Walter Matthau (House Calls, Hopscotch).
I find it puzzling that you find it puzzling. They may have externally been different, but they weren't actually. Because they both had a third eye. Ken could create a climate that you could actually work in. He was completely human-being oriented. Walter was exactly the same. He was funny, but he was also very serious about the things that mattered to him. Oh, God, did I enjoy working with him!
Do you ever look at such contemporaries as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and envy their James Bond or Harry Potter money?
No. I was offered M, or whatever part Judi played in the Bond films.
Why did you turn that down?
Because it was boring.
How did you get into politics?
I'd always been supportive of the Labour Party, certainly since the mid-'70s. I campaigned for candidates. I would go to fundraising dinners, write begging letters, that kind of thing. Out of the blue one day, the constituency party of Hampstead rang me up and said, "We're having trouble selecting a prospective candidate, will you put your name in the hat?" And anything I could have done that was legal to get Margaret Thatcher and her government out, I was prepared to have a go at. My country had been destroyed! Every single shop doorway was a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room for some homeless person. And in many cases, they were also mentally ill. Everything had just fractured before your eyes. What I had been taught were vices, she said were virtues, such as greed. She said there's no such thing as a society. That so infuriated me I walked into my closed French windows and almost broke my nose!
Did you have trouble getting people to take you seriously? A movie star with no political experience?
I thought I might. But you know, I was never a star, in that sense. Certainly not in my home county.
You were a two-time Oscar winner …
But that doesn't make you a star. A star is someone people go to see because of who they are. No one came to see me because of who I am. They came to see me act. It's not the same.
Did you grow up in a leftist household?
Not particularly. My parents voted entirely on how well they thought the government had been doing for them. My grandmother voted conservative all her life. I never got into a political argument with her! (Laughs.)
Is there anything I can do to persuade you to become a U.S. citizen and run for Congress?
I'm afraid not.
You worked with Cynthia Nixon in that 1989 production of Virginia Woolf. Have you been following her gubernatorial race?
Cynthia came to see the play! She doesn't look a day older than she did when I last saw her. I said to her, "If you want me to go knocking on doors, let me know. I have Mondays off." I hope she does well. I think it's terrific.
What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement in Hollywood and beyond?
When it all broke, I mean the Harvey Weinstein stuff, I thought to myself, "Two women die in my country every week at the hands of their partners. That's never front-page news or caused the creation of a movement." The idea that this kind of behavior is exclusive to certain professions or people with certain amounts of money is bullshit. It is endemic, it is constant.
Now that you've re-established yourself, any desire to do film or television? It's certainly less grueling than eight shows a week.
Oh, for God's sake! We're not digging coal! That's par for the course, you do it eight times a week! My worst day is my day off. I would do something if the script was good. Nothing has grabbed me up to now.
You should get plenty of offers. We are, after all, living in an era in which older women are experiencing a renaissance when it comes to acting.
Come on! No, they're not. I'm sorry, they're not. I mean, why is it that contemporary dramatists don't find women interesting? That has never changed since I first set foot on a stage.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.