The Olivier-winning actor Eve Best has conquered stage and screen as Wallis Simpson, Hedda Gabler, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and is currently starring at The Old Vic as the Duchess of Malfi. IdeasMag headed to her dressing room to hear about how she gets into character, why she was a terrible waitress and how drama school changed her life...
I went to Oxford to read English and did a lot of plays; at least two a term.
My boyfriend at the time left Oxford and straight away got a job at the National Theatre, an agent and all that. So, I just thought that was what happened. But, when I got to London I somehow got none of those things.
I pooled my resources and used my own savings to put on a play at Battersea Arts Centre. It went down very well, but still no agents magically arrived. I did another play at The Gate called Brothers and Sisters, directed by David Farr. Again that went down very well but again I couldn’t get an agent to come and see me for love nor money. Then I did Much Ado About Nothing at Southwark Playhouse. I played Beatrice and got a very nice review, but I still just couldn’t get the business to notice me.
I was waitressing at the River Cafe. I was hopeless. I used to always get the tables with people like Richard Gere because I was charming, but would always get everybody’s order completely wrong. I also directed three children’s shows and went off to Italy to learn opera directing: it was a busy time but I was very frustrated.
I remember sitting in my flat, literally waiting for the phone to ring and I just thought, “This is an insane waste of my time. I don’t care where I do it, I just want to be taking action – literally acting.”
So I applied to all the drama schools I could afford – it’s unbelievably expensive. I was 24 and had done those three plays, so got in to them all and decided to go to RADA. It was absolutely life-changing.
For me, drama school is the crossover from amateur to professional. It’s your way of saying, I commit to this.
Drama school teaches you how to fail. You are required to fail and will get in trouble if you don’t. You have to expose yourself, make mistakes, tumble over, fall flat on your face and then learn how to pick yourself up.
Every day you’re learning a song, doing a fight class, presenting a speech you wrote at dawn, learning your lines for a play, doing a Shakespeare scene, learning a restoration dance and suddenly having to do a clown workshop. It’s impossible to do all of those well; you just have to have a bash and sometimes, inevitably you will fail.
That feeling of fear when you’ve just finished your last job never goes away. I’ve had some amazing jobs, followed by six or nine months of twiddling my thumbs and whistling to the air. I did a lot of panicking, a lot of going down the rabbit hole. Then you buy things like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, start setting up your own work and writing your own plays. As the actress Maggie Steed once told me, it’s just the creative void and you’ve got to go through it.
After Hedda Gabler [at the Almeida in 2005] I did absolutely nothing. I wasn’t working – I had to go off and do a clowning class for a week.
I’ve always found David Mamet’s book True and False very helpful at those times. You’ve just got to keep active. And, remember, it’s the same for everybody. Don’t rely on your agent; they don’t have creative power. And don’t worry if you don’t have an agent. Do the work, and all the other stuff will follow.
Don’t go to drama school to please other people: go for yourself.
In Focus: How to approach a well-known character
Approach it in exactly the same way you would approach a new character.
Of course, when playing someone like the Duchess of Malfi, I am hugely aware of this huge roster of actresses who have played her from Ellen Terry via Peggy Ashcroft down to Helen Mirren, and it is intimidating. But you just have to forget about that and look at how your respond to this person – what you see in these words. All you can do is just say the words.
David Mamet says that there is no such thing as character. How can you describe your own character? Strong, vulnerable, feminine, masculine, messy, efficient, weak-willed, ambitious; you’re everything.
A character is just a combination of events. It’s the same with a play – you just have to say their words and go from event to event to event. They will become you because their words are in your mouth.
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