The actor: A longtime stalwart of British stage and screen who’s hit the buzzworthy TV jackpot over the last few years, Harriet Walter has done everything from playing a detective on Law & Order: UK to rickrolling the world with the cast of Ted Lasso. She plays a less-than-stellar mother in the latter, something that she’s also done—with some reservations about typecasting—in both Succession and The Last Duel. She plays an acceptance of the status quo with aplomb in films like Atonement, keeping a stiff upper lip even as she plays the icy wall off which the story often ricochets.
We talked to Walter about her recent hot streak, her concerns over being typecast as a certain type of older woman, and her seven seconds of Star Wars stardom.
The A.V. Club: Your character is absolutely merciless in this movie, and she also has no eyebrows. Where do you think she was coming from? Where did that level of self-preservation come from?
Harriet Walter: I think she represents the norm of women at the time, because there was this rule of men and you didn’t challenge it. You had no economic independence outside of the man you were married to or the man you were daughter to. That was your destiny. Particularly in the upper echelons of society you were a kind of trophy or pawn to be shifted around on a chessboard. She has been indoctrinated with that by her mother and her mother’s mother and everyone around. That’s the culture she’s living in.
So when Marguerite challenges that and brings up all the echoes of [Nicole’s] own past, which I don’t really want to reveal in case people haven’t seen the movie, but a large window opens for a second into what Nicole’s past experiences are. She has the opposite reaction to what I would call a feminist reaction of support because she feels, “I had to do it this way, so you can bloody well do it that way. Why are you challenging what I have had to put my whole life behind?”
It’s quite a common story. I think even now when certain women don’t help other women, there’s a sense of, “I had it hard, so why should I let you have it soft?” Do you know what I mean? Marguerite challenging the status quo calls in question why I didn’t challenge the status quo. And, you know, she’s old enough to have solidified in her beliefs. They’re really solid beliefs that that’s the way the world works and you’d do best to keep your head down and get on with it.
The lack of eyebrows, I thought, was a token gesture, partly because I really wanted to have that look because a lot of medieval iconography from church paintings and things has these very plucked eyebrows and high foreheads. I thought that’s what the beauty criterion was of the day. She’s somebody who, you know, that was when she was beautiful. That was her fashion when she was young, and she’s maintaining it because she’s keeping up. She’s frozen in time. That was the kind of feeling I wanted to give her.
AVC: She also seems to view their marriage as very transactional, and if so, then she has no skin in the game for Marguerite. She’s there for her son, period.
HW: Exactly. It’s very much to protect her son. As she sees it, the whole deal has come about because Marguerite has kicked up a fuss and put her son’s life in danger. That’s so central.
I remember [director] Ridley [Scott] saying, “Remember you hate her,” and I would say, “But I’m not sure I hate her.” It’s not so much about another mother-in-law and daughter-in-law clash, which was Ridley’s version. I was much more concerned with showing that tension comes because of a certain sense of ownership of the man, her son, who stands opposed to a much younger man. You know, “I can criticize him, but you can’t. I know my son’s been a doofus on all sorts of fronts, but I’m the one to tell him that.”
So, yes, there’s a fear and anger involved in my feelings towards her. But there were little nuances and signs of solidarity that actually had to be cut out of the movie because of the length and also just because it clashed with the general theme, which was that there was no ally for Marguerite. So the tiny little nuanced scenes where I am a little bit motherly and help her out, they cut out.
AVC: Does not having an heir put her in danger? If he dies and the estate moves on to someone else, is she out on her own?
HW: I think she’s safe for her lifetime because there are ways you can legally keep tenure. I’ve been shoved out of the family home into some dower house already, anyway. I’ve only got five servants, so I’m already living very much down.
But yes, there’s the idea that the son carries forward the family name and the family honor and everything that my husband acquired, and I’m seeing my son throw it all away. Plus, we had this heir who died. His little boy died as a child, and so, of course, I’m in favor of him remarrying and having a second chance at that, but I’m knitting a little bonnet for the baby and kind of go, “Have a baby for God’s sake.”
AVC: And it certainly isn’t his fault that they haven’t had one yet.
Killing Eve (2020)—“Dasha”
AVC: Speaking of motherly figures, this was not the first time you worked with Jodie Comer. You knew each other from Killing Eve. What was it like to dive into that world as Dasha?
HW: Dive is the right word, really, because I’d watched it as an audience member and that’s always so strange when you’ve seen a show as part of an audience and suddenly you have this surreal, “Hey, I’m in the frame” feeling as though you’ve leapt into a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But it was kind of perfect because I knew enough people in the cast to feel not too intimidated. I had such an extraordinary character and there was nobody saying, “you’ve got to be like this, you’ve got to fit into that” because Dasha just doesn’t fit in. So it was up to me what I created, really.
In a way, I think a lot of the inspiration for that and a lot of the creation of that character came from the design of the clothes and the wig from the hair designer. Of course, we had discussions about it, but the [costume] designer, Sam Perry, came up with this tracksuit look with Dasha written across the back on all her clothes. For somebody who’s supposed to be working slightly undercover, it’s a bit of a giveaway, you know?
There was a sense in which she was referring to this slightly Eastern European palette of pinks and purples and leopard skin and stuff like that. That, to me, was a great inspiration because it took me right out of my normal if I have a normal and it did a lot of the work for me. Sometimes your look can do quite a lot for you.
AVC: Lady Caroline Collingwood is another interesting mother figure. It couldn’t have been easy for her to be married to Logan and to have her kids off in New York.
HW: Thank you. That’s a rare comment. I usually get, “What a hyena. Now we understand why the kids are the way they are.” And I go, “Yeah, and Logan doesn’t explain why they are the way they are?”
Also, do the math. I must have been around for at least 10 years to have those three kids, and they all have very strong American accents. So I conclude from that that I lived in America rather than they lived in Britain. I took my life over there and did the thing you’re supposed to do.
I have to say that I’ve created a backstory that [Succession creator] Jesse [Armstrong] approves of because I had to fill in the dots. He has to look over everything, though, and I only have my character to look after. So I created a sort of backstory where she’s certainly no saint, but you do understand that she was badly parented and she has no clue about being a mother, really. She handed everything off to nannies, but she thinks she loves her kids and she has her cozy moments with them. When anything gets profound and real and they really need her, a kind of shutter goes down because that’s what she knows, because that’s what happened to her when she was a kid.
I know that sounds like a bit of a get-out, but it is a pattern we see all over the place. She doesn’t really know how to be intimate, and she doesn’t know how to handle demands. And so it’s not that she’s cold. She’s not cold, she’s just incredibly shut back. She thinks she’s being warm and cozy and calls them by nicknames and chucks them under the chin, but then in a defensive way, her tongue just lashes out. This is her defense.
I also think she gets very bored. She has a very small, short boredom threshold, so she creates a stir. She creates trouble. She creates things to happen. She says provocative things, partly because she knows that her kids can give her exactly the same back.
I don’t think she’d tread on them if she knew how vulnerable they were. I don’t think she would do that. I don’t think she’s an unkind, horrible person. I think she’s just a very damaged person.
AVC: It’s interesting you say that she was poorly parented because you can see that she probably thinks she’s doing a better job than her parents did, which she probably is. Also, the lashing out could be something she’s done since she was a girl just to get attention from those same parents.
HW: All of that is a defense and it’s also fun. I think she married Logan in the first place because she went to America for some fun because England was pretty boring at that time. The social echelon she comes from is very stuffy, and so I think she got into the drug scene and she partied a lot and met this genius rich guy called Logan Roy, and he wanted a bit of class in his life or whatever it was. They took off and he gave her the means to a lifestyle she could really get off on. When she had the kids, it was kind of boring, so she said, “I’m not going to stay around in the nursery all day. You go and play. I’m going out to a party.” I just can see it.
AVC: She also keeps that distance, like when Kendall came to her and she said “I don’t really want to talk about it.” That’s also sort of a way to say, “If things get too hairy with us, maybe we won’t see each other as much, so if we can keep this like surface level relationship with each other. We can still maintain our relationship.”
HW: Exactly. I think because they don’t see one another very often, she doesn’t want any time that they do have together to get nasty.
There’s a couple of little hints, too. In season one, there was a little scene that got cut. Kendall says he’s “been seeing a shrink and he says to forgive you.” And I say, “Okay.” So I know that every time Kendall comes to me, I’m going to get some kind of psychiatric babble about how what a bad mother I’ve been. I think he’s trying to say, “Let’s have a showdown. I’ve got to earnestly tell you what a shit mother you’ve been.” Do you see what I mean? So that’s why it’s an issue.
Similarly, when the other two come in the scene before that, when she gives them the partridge or quail with shot in it, she’s very defensive when her daughter says, “How are things?” It’s like, if you ask me that sort of question, she immediately thinks her kids are on the attack, and she wants to get them first.
AVC: You were part of a pivotal episode of one of the most recent episodes of Ted Lasso, which was the big church funeral scene. What was it like filming in that church and all the stuff that was going on in that building?
HW: That was extraordinary. Again, it was a visit into a show that I’d seen, and suddenly [Hannah Waddingham is] my daughter and I was there.
At first I was a little worried because I hadn’t seen all the scripts. I was a little worried that there’s a scene where I say, “I’ll cook you something nice tonight” and then don’t show up. I thought, “Oh, are we repeating history here?” So I was very determined to make her different, to have her come from a different social class, to come from a different kind of vulnerability. It seemed to work that you could still have that kind of a daughter and that kind of a mother that would work together.
We learn in that pivotal episode that she’s been a doormat to her husband. And once again, it’s slightly an echo of The Last Duel where the older woman is saying, “I put up with it” and the younger one is saying, “Why, what does it get you?” And that is very much today’s story. That’s what’s happening. I find that theme is being played out in lots of stuff I’m doing.
The church scene, I mean, Hannah Waddingham is just a phenomenon. She’s a musical theater actress here in London, and she’s much more, too. It was just wonderful to see her get up and do that kind of dramatic holding back that turns into a musical, emotional thing in the middle of a ha ha ha comic series.
Jason [Sudeikis has] been brilliant to introduce that much more serious element and to be able to do the ride himself between being hilarious and really touching. I thought it was a really brave episode that says, “Okay guys, we’ve had a lot of fun but let’s make these people even more real.” It felt very organic. It felt right. None of them were being shoehorned in. They seemed to be coming into a situation that someone had died, and that’s a trigger point for all sorts of relationship crises. I thought that was really believable.
AVC: When anybody dies in real life, you can see such a different aspect of people. Grief makes people do weird stuff. People are in some sense the purest version of themselves.
HW: Sometimes, yes. You don’t go to funerals and hear people say, “He was shit at this and he was shit at that.” Everybody says the best thing they can say because there’s a kind of closure. If there was something wrong, it’s over now. You’ve got to move on.
I find it very interesting that Rebecca can’t do that. She can’t say anything. She has to sing it, and I love that because I think that’s that’s so true to life as well. So she shifts a different gear.
What struck me was also the support of the team. They got all dressed up and showed up for somebody they didn’t know. They didn’t know her father, presumably, but they show up for her because funerals are for the people who are left behind.
AVC: In an interview that you did with The Guardian, you said something to the effect of how you often get asked to play a mom or older woman who puts a spanner in the works or shows how the main character got where they were. But you also said that you sometimes fear you’re reinforcing a negative image of older women. Can you talk about that? I can see what you mean, especially the image of older upper middle or upper class British women.
HW: There are many layers and I hesitate to talk about it because I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I’m so pleased I keep working. But at the same time, there are so many prejudices against women, so many prejudices against older women and fear of age, and so many prejudices about upper class women in our country. We like people who don’t make it in our country. It’s not the American culture. If you’ve had privilege, people want you to lose. They want you to fall.
Partly because of the way I look and sound, this is the reality of casting, I’m not going to play the cuddly working-class granny. That can be another kind of stereotype that isn’t helpful to older people. Basically, my mission in life is to say that older people are older people. They are still people. They’re exactly the people they were, but they have grown older and they have lived longer. There’s no way they haven’t been and nothing they don’t know. There is that aspect, including knowing that they’re not relevant anymore, knowing that they don’t matter anymore. They have a humility. I’m generalizing, but what I’m saying is there are 100 million assets to an older person.
Functionally in drama, an older woman—if she’s there at all—is often the brick wall. The drama happens when the young person meets the brick wall and meets opposition. I did a movie very recently called Herself, it’s a beautiful Irish film. I play an older woman who is the agent of help, and she understands the young woman and gives her agency. Why not have more of that?
My theory is that a lot of people who are writing stuff now are in their late 30s, 40s and they are looking at their parents and their models of mothers. If you loved your mummy and she was sweet, you don’t write about her. But if she was a demon in your eyes, you’ll exorcize that demon by writing it.
I look at my own mother now that I’ve grown older and I’d love to see her again because I think, “God, you’re just a woman. You were just this person, but to me, you were mummy. You had to be my mummy. You had to give me what I wanted, and if you didn’t give me what I wanted, I hated you.” That infantile attitude about your parent stays with you a very long time, and then you get to the age of 40 and you can write about it.
Believe me, when you’re 70, you want to go and say to your mother, “I get it, you’re a person, and I only knew one aspect of you, which was the facet of ‘I need this from you’ instead of ‘How do you feel? What’s it like? Do you know what you want? What haven’t you done?’”
I’d love that to be reflected more in roles and to make the old woman the center of the story and not always the thing you’re bouncing off, the sort of the constant that has to be hit against.
AVC: The mom stuff, I think about a lot too. I’m a mom to younger kids and it’s very much like they’re the sun and you’re the moon, if that makes sense. As a child, you think of your parents in terms of how they relate to you, not in terms of how they relate to the world at large. If you can get past that, it makes your parents more interesting people.
HW: You should write that down. That’s better than what I said. That’s exactly what I think.
AVC: Speaking of age, The End does a good job of looking at an older woman’s story and giving her both agency and a back story. What did you like about working on The End?
HW: It’s so original. I don’t know anything like it. It’s an answer to that prayer I just expressed of putting an old woman at the center of the story, although she’s again an obstructive, rather bitter woman in some ways, but you get the air time to give her all sorts of other aspects.
It’s again that thing where somebody has given their life up to being a wife or mother or grandmother. They haven’t had much time to think, “Who am I? What do I want to do?” And, paradoxically, by being catapulted into this old people’s enclosure, she’s broken out with the help of this friend who introduces her to drugs and sex and everything else. So I describe her as an adolescent because what I find interesting about older people is that when you’re young, you’re just young. When you’re middle-aged, you’re young and middle-aged. When you’re old, you’re old, middle-aged, and young. All those people are in you. So she’s this adolescent who never really grew up, never rebelled, and never took care of herself and her own needs. Suddenly she’s let out of the bag and she starts to flirt with things she’s never done before.
I love the originality. I quite like the in-depth serious topic we’re talking about, which is assisted suicide, really, and yet it sort of borders on black humor like there’s a sort of a Breaking Bad kind of take on it. It’s kind of lawless and black, but also its heart is quite deep. I’ve seen that subject tackled in a more glib way, and I’m so grateful this is not really glib. It’s funny, but it’s not glib.
AVC: You have also played a number of police officers or detectives, and you’ve been named one of Britain’s favorite detectives for your Law & Order: UK character. Why do you think people look at you and think of law enforcement?
HW: It’s funny that you say that, because I would say almost two-thirds of my career was on stage, and a lot of that was Shakespeare. Shakespeare does not pigeonhole anybody. You have to dig into your own heart and reach something bigger than the size I am. There’s something about Shakespeare that breaks down all the boundaries. I’ve played men and people of color can play King Henry… There’s an open world sense about Shakespeare, which means that I was never typecast in my life. I did comedy, I did tragedy. I always felt, “Gosh, I’m a really lucky actor because I’ve never been typecast.”
But then if I look at the TV appearances, I’ve said, “Actually, there is a bit of an authority figure thing going on.” I don’t like to even think of it that way because now there’s a kind of horrible mother thing going on, so I think that the type has shifted. But yeah, you could you could collect everything up and say, “if I could sum her up as” blah, but actually, they’re all very different inside.
I think it’s also regrettably just part of playing a function in a story. When you’re playing a detective in Law & Order, it’s not about the team, it’s about the procedural. You don’t go into their homes very much. You don’t find out what makes them tick. It’s very much their manner and demeanor and modus operandi that’s important. So it doesn’t really get your juices going in the way that a big, dramatic Shakespearean role does where you have to probe deep into your heart. It’s not that kind of acting.
I like to do a lot of different kinds of acting. I like to adapt to different styles and watch Ted Lasso and say, “Okay, I’m going to fit into that,” or watch Killing Eve and say, “Okay, I have to fit into that.” Everything has a different atmosphere or style about it. I think I could play a detective in all of those, and it would be different because the whole overall style is what I’m trying to go for. I pride myself on my adaptability in that way rather than, “Oh, I’m playing lots of different character types.”
I think the way you look gets you certain jobs. I look like I could be scary. I do. I look like my grandmother, who was scary, so I can play her. That’s the commodity you’re selling on screen. You’re selling how you come over, and it’s a bit alarming when you get feedback like, “This would be perfect for you” and you read this horrible cow, you know, and you go, “Why would that be perfect for me?”
I have to say that I like it best when you break out of those clichés of, you know, tall, dark people with bony noses are nasty and small blond people with curly hair are sweet. I’d like to get out of that.
HW: I loved working on that movie because Joe Wright was a real actor’s director. He gave space and time to the acting and to making us into a family. He had a lot of emphasis on the way we spoke and that it was a narrow world we were growing up in. So we all sort of had to try and sound alike in this very clipped, fast way, which is again avoiding anything nasty and upsetting. Let’s not have emotions, you know.
Again, [my character is] a woman who very much upholds the status quo, how things have to be and how people should behave, and how the classes must be kept apart. She hasn’t done a lot of thinking about that. She just inherited those attitudes and is sticking to them.
There’s a cut scene that I think is on the DVD extras, but you hear me on the phone to my husband and he’s obviously having an affair. She knows it and she’s keeping quiet about it and suffering in silence, and that’s why she has migraines. All of that helps you play the part. You know, in a movie, you’ve got to go straight to the point. You’ve got to keep on with the story, and so that scene was cut.
What was great and unprecedented for me was that Joe allowed us into the location house. This weird and extraordinary house. The art department had done all the furnishings of the rooms, and we were allowed to familiarize ourselves with our home. That sounds a bit method, but it was really helpful that instead of walking in on day two, and “this is your house,” you actually could live in it for for a day and get to know it. He said, “I just want to leave you alone and you do your thing. If you need any props, call for them. We’ll go off and rehearse something somewhere else.” Brenda Blethyn was told to do the same in the kitchen. Familiarize yourself with the service department and see how you run things.
I started to write letters to friends at my little desk with my envelopes and my pens. I invented friends that I was going to invite to a supper. There were lots of photographs on the mantel shelf and I started to say, “Oh, that’s Uncle Fred, and that’s Jane.” So I started to own the room and own the place, which, people scoff at method [acting], but it does kind of reinforce your interior life so that you don’t feel so transparent. You feel more solid and and you believe yourself.
I know that sounds a bit self-indulgent, but in order to make anybody believe got to believe yourself, and I started to really believe I could be that woman who lived in that house and whose husband was having an affair and she had migraines and she had to hold it together amongst the misbehavior that’s going on under her nose and the chaos that’s bubbling underneath, the disruption of order, the war coming… She’s in a very insecure place and she’s getting migraines.
I love the fact that Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch and Juno Temple, who’s in Ted Lasso, they were all kind of these little babies who have now gone whoosh, you know? So that was quite lovely.
AVC: You’ve actually worked with quite a few people more than once. Like on Succession, you did Little Dorrit with Matthew McFadyen, and you were in The Magical Legend Of The Leprechauns with Kieran Culkin. That had a wild cast, by the way: Whoopi Goldberg, Roger Daltrey, Randy Quaid, Culkin, and you.
HW: That’s a case of, “Will you drop everything and come and join a show called The Magic World Of The Leprechauns” or whatever it’s called. “We’re going to give you blue contact lenses, a blond wig, and can you do an Irish accent?” It makes you think, “Maybe I’m not first choice on this casting. A few people that have dropped out must have been blonde Irish actresses.” But who cares? I did it and I got to hang out with Roger Daltrey.
AVC: Earlier in your career you were on Girls On Top, which starred French and Saunders, Tracey Ullman, and Ruby Wax. You had been acting on stage for a while, but what was it like to dip into that TV comedy world?
HW: When you’re playing on stage night after night, and in my case in repertoire for two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, you don’t get a chance to go on screen. There isn’t room in your calendar to do any TV. And yet I always wanted to. I always wanted to act on screen. In fact, at drama school, they all said that’s where I’d end up. They’d say, “You can’t project, you’re too quiet, you’ll never do stage work.”
I knew Ruby Wax and I’d met Tracey Ullman, I think. They knew that I was happy to fool around in real life and that I wasn’t as serious as some people thought I was. I think they liked to use the fact that if I was known at all, it was as a serious actress and so they were putting that twist on the character in that sketch. Ruby was infiltrating this serious acting situation, and we were all being a bit subversive. Imagine my delight, because I really was pigeonholed into the National Theater and to be able to send it up was this kind of light relief.
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)—“Dr. Kalonia”
HW: A crucial seven seconds in my career.
AVC: Hey, those seven seconds will get you fan conventions for the rest of your life.
HW: Absolutely. I get more stuff from that. Somebody told me, “You will have been seen by more people in those seven seconds than in everything you’ve done to date added up together.” I don’t know how they calculate that, but that’s pretty extraordinary.
Like so many people I know, you don’t have any idea how you got it or why you. You know that there was a machine behind the scenes pulling strings saying, “We’ve got to have this doctor.” It’s part of the absolute lottery.
The very first time I saw a script—because you don’t get sent a script and in your audition, you don’t do anything from the actual film, so I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for. When I got the job and I went on for a costume check or makeup check or whatever, this woman came up to me said, “Do you want your lines?” I said, “Oh yeah, that would be great,” and she gave me this page, which was almost empty. I looked around and said, “Did you drop some?” But no, that was it. Originally it just said—it didn’t name Chewbacca—it just said, “Somebody speaks, and then you say, ‘You are most welcome.’” That’s four words.
So I thought, “What am I being brought here for? This is crazy.” I was actually quite disappointed, I have to admit. So I went for my makeup thing and my clothes test and I was reeling from this. I said, “I’ve only got four words and anybody can say them.”
The costume designer knew me a little bit and he was big pals with [director] J.J. [Abrams] and he said, “You’re coming with me.” He went and talked to J.J. and I don’t know what he said, but then I got invited to meet J.J. on the set. I wasn’t due to work that day. I was just coming for costume fitting. And so I met J.J., who’s adorable, and he said, “We’ll find something. We’ll get something else going on for you to say. Don’t worry. We’ll see on the day.”
I looked around and there was the costume designer just kind of [nods], “Leave it with me.” And so I got seven words instead or 11 words or whatever it was, but they were fun words. They were words I could play with and do something with. J.J. was just always enthusiastic and energetic, and I know he got it. But anyway, it was actually a really pleasurable job to do.
AVC: You never know. You could get called back. They’ll say, “We’re making a Dr. Kalonia movie!”
HW: Well, somebody’s got to get sick!