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Diana Rigg on The Avengers’ Mrs. Peel, Game Of Thrones, and matchmaking for Vincent Price

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Diana Rigg became a swinging ’60s icon as Emma Peel in the hit spy show The Avengers and as the Bond girl who becomes Mrs. James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the years since, Dame Diana has punctuated a significant career on the London and New York stages (including a Tony Award for Medea in 1994) with appearances in cult movies like The Hospital, Theater Of Blood, and The Great Muppet Caper. Fifty years after television made her a star, she’s back on TV in a showy role as the scheming, sarcastic Lady Olenna in Game Of Thrones.

Sentimental Agent (1963)—“Francy Wilde”
Armchair Theatre: The Hothouse (1964)—“Anita Fender”
ITV Play Of The Week: Women Beware Women (1965)—“Bianca”

DR: [Women Beware Women] was black and white, and it was absolutely fascinating, because there were three cameras and the director had to really work out his camera placement, otherwise you’d end up with a cat’s cradle in all the wires. And it was exciting, because it was very sort of first-nightish. There were retakes, but you desperately tried not to have retakes. Arising out of that sort of situation, there were various wheezes that actors did if they forgot their lines. They quite simply [mouthed words silently] and it sounded as if the sound had failed. And I suppose they had to go back and do it again.

There was a guy called Carlos Thompson, who was I think Argentinian, and he was doing a series called Sentimental Agent. That was the very first thing that I did. It was supposed to be taking place in some exotic location, but in actual fact it was Chertsey with a few shivering potted palms.

AVC: You mentioned in an email that Harry Corbett, your leading man in The Hothouse, was “horrible” to you.

DR: Yeah, he was not a nice person to work with. He was very, very sour. And I was replacing the director’s wife. I think she’d fallen ill or something. So the director didn’t like me either, because he wanted his wife. It wasn’t a happy experience at all. I rose above, as one does. And Women Beware Women, did you see that? It’s good. That’s black and white, too. It’s rather splendid that they’d do sort of Jacobean drama for television, isn’t it? Fat chance of that happening now.

The Avengers (1965-68)—“Emma Peel”

AVC: Did those early TV parts lead to your being cast as Emma Peel?

DR: Do you know, I have no idea how I got The Avengers? I’d left the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I was one of a long list of girls, and got it on my audition. We were filmed and you had to fight a stuntman. There was a stuntman called Ray Austin, and the poor man, by the time I got to him—it was about 4 in the afternoon—he’d been bashed around by so many desperate actresses, absolutely determined to get the part. He was a very sorry sight.

AVC: The writer-producer Brian Clemens died in January. He’s usually mentioned as the main creative force behind The Avengers.

DR: Yes, he was. And very much behind all the sort of innovations of The Avengers. But we did have a stellar cast of directors, who had all of them, in one way or another, like Roy Ward [Baker] and people like Charlie Crichton, had done Ealing comedies and things. It was quite extraordinary. These men actually, probably, would have rather despised working in television, but the fact of the matter was that films, certainly English films, were in decline, so they were very glad to do a job in television. And they did it brilliantly, and I was very lucky to work with those sort of directors.

AVC: Did you have any trouble, at the outset, capturing the unique tone of the show—that sort of droll, unflappable quality that Steel and Mrs. Peel always have?

DR: I sort of vaguely knew Patrick Macnee, and he looked kindly on me and sort of husbanded me through the first couple of episodes. After that we became equal, and loved each other and sparked off each other. And we’d then improvise, write our own lines. They trusted us. Particularly our scenes when we were finding a dead body—I mean, another dead body. How do you get ’round that one? They allowed us to do it.

AVC: That’s so unusual. It’s hard to imagine anyone improvising dialogue on Game Of Thrones, for instance.

DR: Not for an instant, no. Well, when I say improvising, Pat and I would sit down and work out approximately what we’d say. It wasn’t sort of… who’s the American duo? Mike Nichols and Elaine May. It was definitely not that.

AVC: Are you still close to Patrick Macnee?

DR: You’ll always be close to somebody that you worked with very intimately for so long, and you become really fond of each other. But we haven’t seen each other for a very, very long time.

AVC: When you look back on The Avengers now, what do you feel about it, in terms of its place in your career?

DR: Gratitude. That I was, having been working my way up the Royal Shakespeare Company, being with them five years, starting as a walk-on and ending up as Cordelia in the Lear that played here, at Lincoln Center, with Paul Scofield. I knew that in order to develop further, I had to leave, and I was lucky enough to get The Avengers. But after the first season I went straight back to Stratford, to say “thank you.” And, “Now I can put bums on seats.” So that’s what I did, doing Twelfth Night. In actual fact I doubled Twelfth Night and The Avengers. I was going backwards and forwards to Stratford. I played matinees Wednesday, matinee and evenings Saturdays, and the other days of the week I was filming in Elstree.

AVC: You’ve obviously made a priority of the theater. Did you make a conscious choice to put that first, ahead of a film career?

DR: Not that I remember, no. I’ve never really been offered a lot of film things. I think there was a bit of a stigma in those days with television. They thought “overexposure,” or “too strongly associated with the character.” Who knows. If you think about it, not many people now, in America, have made good on film subsequent to television.

AVC: But you did star in a number of films in the years right after The Avengers.

DR: Well, I kept on going back to the theater, so I think the message was finally received that that was where my heart was.

The Hospital (1971)—“Barbara Drummond”

DR: That’s a very good movie. It’s courtesy of Paddy Chayefsky that I got that part. He saw me in Abelard And Heloise, on Broadway, and he fought for me to get the job. We adored each other. We used to play Scrabble when we had time. He’d put Yiddish words down on the board and I’d scream at him.

AVC: Was Chayefsky more important to that film than Arthur Hiller? I’ve heard that he exercised a lot of control over the films he wrote.

DR: Oh, I don’t know. No. Arthur was the director, definitely. Paddy went on to write Network, and he wanted me to play the Faye Dunaway part, and I didn’t get it. So he called her Diana.

AVC: What was your impression of George C. Scott?

DR: He was a very troubled man. Is he still alive? Well… He was one of those people who rather despised himself for being an actor. And I despise those sort of people. He was a brilliant actor, undoubtedly. But he was very troubled. And he did disappear from time to time, for quite lengthy periods. That was when Paddy and I would hit the Scrabble board. I liked working with him hugely, because you never knew what he was going to do, and there was this sort of power emanating from him. It was, like, reined in, and you never knew when it would burst. I loved it. It was very exciting, and I think our scenes were quite good. So I enjoyed the whole thing.

Julius Caesar (1970)—“Portia”

DR: It was all right, but it wasn’t an entirely successful film at all. It was made on a shoestring. You might notice people leaning up against pillars which shake from time to time. And we were all dressed in sheets. [Laughs.] It was Charlton Heston’s dream to do it. And we did it, I think it was in Madrid. Jason Robards wasn’t happy. He was not a happy bunny. He looked like Widow Twankey, with those curls. He looked sort of—what’s the word?—harried. Worried. “What am I doing here?”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)—“Tracy”

DR: I enjoyed it. It was the aftermath, the fallout, that was just not good. For either of us [Rigg and George Lazenby], actually, because it appeared as if we were scrapping, and we weren’t. I very much enjoyed—I mean, it was a very luxe film. Pots of money. Lovely locations. And a good script.

AVC: There’s the sense that the film is so popular among Bond fans largely because of your character, and how she adds some emotion and gravitas to the formula.

DR: Yes. Unlike most Bond heroines, she had a touch of melancholy about her. She was much more substantial than most.

AVC: Was there a lot of input from the director, Peter Hunt, or the producers in terms of that aspect of the character? Or was that something you brought to it?

DR: No, there wasn’t a lot. No. That was me, fleshing it out rather more than—I mean, the way I played it. In terms of the script, I didn’t add to it at all. I mean, I knew why I was there: I was there to help George through, and to give more substance. Probably because George was completely, as an actor, green. He wasn’t bad. He was not bad, at all. He was just rather difficult and temperamental to handle.

The Assassination Bureau (1969)—“Sonya Winter”

DR: It was not a good film. Basil Dearden, now there’s another highly accomplished director. Absolutely wonderful. Huge string of English films behind him. Nice man, really nice man. And Telly Savalas, who was a very good actor.

AVC: It’s a real star vehicle for you. Oliver Reed may be top billed, but your character is the protagonist.

DR: I haven’t seen it.

AVC: You’ve never seen it? Really?

DR: No, I haven’t. I once met an accountant who challenged me and said, “I put money in your film and I lost every penny!” And that was The Assassination Bureau. He was a very cross little person.

AVC: Are there a lot of your films that you haven’t seen?

DR: I don’t actually watch myself, no. From time to time. I went, actually, to see Women Beware Women, about three or four years ago. They were doing it at the Southbank and asked me to go. And I was nicely surprised. It was rather better than I remembered.

AVC: You must have some Oliver Reed stories.

DR: He was a man who liked his booze. It’s sort of weird when people who are intemperate become heroes. Because there’s a side of intemperance which is deeply ugly. And he was rather fond of getting hold of the poor little third assistant and getting him drunk. The boy couldn’t say no, and he’d be on the set with a godawful hangover the following day.

Theater Of Blood (1973)—“Edwina Lionheart”

DR: That’s a brill film. I think it’s so original, and the characters are so wonderful. It has an implacability about it, that everybody’s going to get murdered at some time or another, and it’s a bit clunky in places. But it’s a wonderful idea, and I think Vincent Price gives a great performance, and proves that he could have been a great classical actor, had he wanted to.

AVC: Did you have fun doing all the disguises?

DR: Oh, I adored it. I mean, I wasn’t terribly good as the male policeman. It was awfully hard to be a fella; it was quite hard. But all the others, I loved it. And I loved working with all those people. I mean, a great range of brilliant character actors in that film. Dennis Price was absolutely adorable. He, in his day, had been a huge heartthrob. Then there was Robert Morley, deeply eccentric, wonderful in the part, pink suit and all those poodles. There was Coral Browne, who set her sights on Vincent Price. You know the story.

AVC: They did get married after that, didn’t they?

DR: Yeah, but… Vincent asked me if I’d go with him to a charity show, Cowardy Custard at the Mermaid Theatre. I went to the loo at the interval and Coral was in the next door cubicle and she suddenly said [imitating Browne’s nasal drawl], “It’s a long time since I’ve fancied a man of me own age, but I fancy Vincent Price.” So in the car on the way home, Vincent said, “It’s Coral’s birthday next week. What can I get her?” And I said, “You have it on your person. Look no further.”

AVC: Did he not know? Was it news to him that she was interested?

DR: That was news to him. But they were at it like knives. Two really, really very tired people on set. Coral told me they’d sat on the edge of the bed and they combined ages: “We’re 167 or something.” They’d worked it out. It was divinely funny. Anyway, it all worked out a treat. Except, that I didn’t know that he was married and had a daughter. I did not know that, otherwise I would not have encouraged it. If I sound sort of po-faced, so be it.

Diana (1973-74)—“Diana Smythe”

DR: It was extraordinary, because they approached me. The producer [Leonard Stern] was a charming man. But what I didn’t know was, it was a carbon copy of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Only me being English. So it was doomed from the beginning. But the fact of the matter is, Barbara Barrie, adorable woman, and Barnard Hughes, who was in The Hospital, and Richard Shull—great. And we had such fun, even though we were doomed. There’s nothing like being doomed to pull people together.

AVC: It seems like you were positioned as a straight man (or woman) for all these kooky characters. Is that how you wanted it?

DR: It was how it fell out. You don’t have much say in the matter, frankly. I mean, I signed for it. And it was very good experience, God, learning 60 pages of dialogue a week and then delivering it in front of a live audience. It was quite droll because when I arrived they sent the limo and when I left they sent the studio [station] wagon. Just: Get out of town.

Extras (2006)—“Diana Rigg”

AVC: Speaking of comedies, I’m just imagining them pitching that scene to you, where you and Daniel Radcliffe are playing yourselves and you end up with the “johnny” on your head.

DR: Well, it was an instant yes, wasn’t it? Because it was beautifully written, very concise, and lovely working with Daniel, who was adorable. In fact, it took forever to film because we were laughing so much. Every time we started, we were breaking up.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)—“Lady Holiday”

DR: I did the film and Charles Grodin was in it as well. I don’t know what was going on—something technical—and Charles and I were in the scene with Miss Piggy and we had to do take after take after take. And finally Charles said to me under his breath, “Bet you never thought you’d be doing 15 takes for a fuckin’ puppet!”

I did it for my daughter, who was passionately in love with Miss Piggy. She was about 5 or 6, and she came to the studio with a couple of friends to meet Miss Piggy, and she burst into tears when she saw Miss Piggy.

AVC: From joy, or fear?

DR: I think she was more frightened than anything. Because Miss Piggy was huge. They have several Miss Piggys. The people were lovely, Frank Oz and Jim [Henson], absolutely charming, lovely people. And I’d adored the show on the telly. I was a fan.

Doctor Who (2013)—“Mrs. Gillyflower”

AVC: Having survived her encounter with Miss Piggy, your daughter Rachael Stirling is now an actress, and you worked together recently on Doctor Who.

DR: Yeah, that was fun. The guy, Mark Gatiss, who writes a lot of that show, and also he writes Sherlock—very, very clever man. I worked with him on All About My Mother, which was an adaptation of the Almodovar film which we did onstage at the Old Vic. He was playing a transsexual and I was playing a lesbian, and we got on really well. Then he played with Rachael in The Recruiting Officer, and then became friendly with Rachie, and suggested that he write something for she and I. Which was great fun.

AVC: Too bad he didn’t get you into Sherlock as well.

DR: Yeah. Well, the women’s parts in Sherlock aren’t that great, are they?

AVC: What’s the best woman’s role in Shakespeare?

DR: Probably Cleopatra.

AVC: In Antony And Cleopatra. And you played her onstage.

DR: Not terribly well. I just … it didn’t work. First of all, the set was a bugger. It was gray. It had to double for Rome and Egypt, and the bias was in Rome. Those huge gray columns were just not Egyptian at all. No sense of sunlight and heat and luxury and Cleopatra. I’m not blaming the set. I’m saying it was part of the reason that the thing didn’t work. Obviously performances are the main reasons. I just wasn’t happy and I just didn’t find her.

King Lear (1983)—“Regan”

AVC: What was it like to play opposite Laurence Olivier as Lear?

DR: We were all there to pay homage to him. He’d never done it, and he was ill. I was a replacement for Faye Dunaway. She had worked with the director, Michael Elliott, a lot before, and then suddenly, I don’t know how, I was asked to do it. The director, Michael, was tetchy with me for some reason I simply couldn’t understand. I think he’d worked so closely with Faye Dunaway and had this image of exactly how he wanted Regan to be played. It was about the third day into rehearsal and he was just on me again, and Olivier said, “Leave her alone. She knows what she’s doing.”

He wanted to do all those speeches in one [take], because he wished to approximate what would happen on stage. And he couldn’t do it. It was agony, agony watching him force himself. He never got through any of the speeches. They had to be cut together.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968)—“Helena”

AVC: You did this film version with Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. What were they like at that age?

DR: Oh, like they are now, but young. Very good, but young. It was a very uncomfortable experience. It was Warwickshire in November. It was incredibly cold. I didn’t think I would ever hear a director saying this, but I had this little slip of a cotton dress on, and I bought some woolly knickers to wear underneath. I didn’t know it at the time, but the angle of the cameraI was up a tree, and I heard Peter Hall say, “Diana, take your knickers off!”

Game Of Thrones (2013-present)—“Lady Olenna”

AVC: The show is produced on several continents. Where do you shoot your scenes?

DR: They’re in Belfast, or Dubrovnik.

AVC: Where is Lady Olenna’s garden?

DR: Dubrovnik. It’s beautiful, lovely, lovely. I think it must have belonged to some aristocratic family or something, and it’s got these pergolas and walks and it’s just ravishing. It’s on a cliff, overlooking the sea.

AVC: One by one, you’ve had a scene with all the great character actors in the cast.

DR: It’s wonderful working with them, because quite a lot of them I’ve worked with before. Charles Dance I’ve worked with before, Julian Glover I’ve worked with before. In the theatre. You pick up the threads with them again after many years. And it’s lovely that, for the most part, there are a lot of English actors. Mind you, I think we pitch up. We know our lines. We don’t demand sixty-foot Winnebagos. And we’re grateful.

AVC: I laughed when we met a few months ago and your only comment on Game Of Thrones was that “they do write some rather good lines for me, don’t they?”

DR: Yeah, they do. I think they’ve got my measure as an actress. And they write for that, which is great.

AVC: You had some good directors on Game Of Thrones. Michelle MacLaren directed one of your episodes.

DR: Yeah, she was great. I love being directed. You know, people think when you’re established that you come on with all guns blazing and you’re not open. But I love being directed. Because it’s another thought, it’s another fresh idea. You’re so grateful for an original idea that you haven’t had.

AVC: But you do have a Tony and a “Dame” in front of your name. Do you ever find that directors are intimidated by you?

DR: I hope not. I’d be horrified if they were.

AVC: Who are the best directors you’ve worked with?

DR: John Dexter, who was at the Met here in New York for a long time. He was a demanding man, very demanding. His career was quite extraordinary. He commissioned a Phaedra for me, we did Pygmalion together, and we did The Misanthrope together, which played Broadway. He was very honest. I remember he could be very cruel, a fact that I didn’t like, obviously. But he had an overall view. The thing I absolutely hate is when directors don’t know what they want, and then they ask you to do it this way, and then maybe that way, and maybe that way, because they haven’t made up their minds what they want. So you’re running around in circles trying to give them what they want. And for me it’s really bad news, because I get bored with listening to myself and I get tetchy with them for not knowing.

AVC: It sounds like you’re describing someone in particular.

DR: I was, actually, but I’m not going to mention names.

AVC: Dexter directed you onstage. Who were some of the best film directors you worked with?

DR: I loved Arthur Hiller. He was great. But I can’t speak from much experience, really… I vote for the Oscars so I see an awful lot of films. Clint Eastwood’s pretty good; I loved his [American] Sniper. You could be in safe hands with him. I think Quentin Tarantino is absolutely fascinating. I’d love to work with him. But I believe he’s quite testy.

AVC: He seems to shoot a lot of footage and find the film in the editing room. So you might end up in that scenario you just described, again.

DR: Hmm. Yes. I’d rather not, then.

AVC: Maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but it was almost exactly 50 years ago that you started shooting The Avengers. How is it different being a TV star now versus then?

DR: Nowadays it’s not film, it’s tape for television. If you’re filming something, and I remember this with The Avengers, you’d rehearse a lot, a lot, a lot, and get it, build up to the point where you’re using film [for a take] and it’s very special. When the director says “Action,” you’re very heightened. Film meant something. Tape doesn’t. Tape’s cheap.

AVC: And Game Of Thrones is shot on tape, right?

DR: Exactly. I had this conversation with the cameraman on Game Of Thrones. There’s not quite that heightened sense. The kids, the younglings, know that if they’re playing a scene and they forget their lines, they just pause. Nobody cuts anything. They just pause and speak again. If you’re on film, that’s undreamt of. It’s very definitely different.

AVC: Are you going to be back for the sixth season?

DR: I don’t think I’m allowed to say!

AVC: Of course. But, can I ask you off the record, is there an episode coming up that we should time this piece to?

DR: I’m sorry, I can’t tell you, because I don’t know. I haven’t seen any scripts. They’re held very close to their chests.

AVC: I’m just worried that you’ve already shot a juicy death scene or something and I won’t have asked you about it.

DR: Oh, you’re expecting me to die?

AVC: Well, they’ve kept you on past your character’s last appearance in the books, haven’t they?

DR: I know. I’m on life support!