Dame Siân Phillips stars as Daisy Werthan alongside Derek Griffiths as Hoke Colburn in a brand new production of Driving Miss Daisy which opens at the Theatre Royal Bath on 6th September ahead of a UK tour. In this interview she talks about playing Miss Daisy and about her career which spans seven decades.
Daisy Werthan is such an iconic role. Is that why you said yes to playing her?
I never know exactly why I choose something, but mainly it’s if it’s well-written – which of course this play is. I read a few plays and this is the one I thought I’d like to do, plus Richard Beecham [the director] and myself were looking for something to do together again, having worked together before.
Can you relate to Daisy in any way?
No I can’t, actually. She’s very different to me. We have nothing in common. I hardly ever have anything in common with the parts I play, but then no two people are alike let alone a character in a play.
Alfred Uhry’s play premiered in 1987. What do you feel makes it so enduring?
There are some plays that have a sort of thread of gold going through them. Twelfth Night for instance always delights an audience. This is one of those plays, like Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, that have a thread of gold going through them and you can’t quite put your finger on it because there are other very good plays that don’t work so well. It’s a mystery but some plays just have that something and this has it and that explains why it has endured.
The story spans twenty-four years from 1948 to 1973. Are there key themes that still resonate today?
Alas everything about it resonates today, I’m afraid, especially with what recently happened in the south of America. Nothing has changed. It’s really bad, so unfortunately a lot of things in this story resonate.
Have you done any research into the era the play covers?
I haven’t personally but I have, in the past, done plays set in the Deep South where I have had to look things up. But I didn’t in this instance because we have a wonderful assistant director and a wonderful company manager who have done all that for us. They’ve printed out all the information we could possibly need, including a lot we don’t need, and it’s all up on the walls. We could do a little degree in politics over the years the play covers.
From reading that material was there anything that surprised or interested you?
Everything. For instance, I didn’t know what things cost in a certain year. We cover more than 20 years in an hour and a half and the geography changes, the landscape changes, buildings change, the cost of things changes, attitudes change, clothes change, cars change – everything changes and the changes in America over those years were huge, even bigger than over here maybe. It’s very interesting and it’s wonderful to be able to check because we sometimes jump six years in a page. It’s very interesting to go to the wall and read what was going on in the background at that time.
Among the actresses who have tackled the role is Jessica Tandy, who won the best actress Oscar for the 1989 film version. Have you watched the film to prepare for the role or deliberately avoided it?
I wish I’d seen the play but somehow I missed it; if you’re in a play you hardly ever see other plays and I’ve missed it every single time it’s been on in America or here. But I wish I had because I love seeing other people do things I’m doing. So I rented the film about three months ago, but of course it’s very different from the play because it’s opened-out and there are extra scenes and all sort of things. I enjoyed it very much and [laughs] now I can’t remember it, but I did enjoy it very much indeed.
Is this the first time you have worked with Derek Griffiths, who plays Hoke Colburn?
It is, yes, and also it’s the first time I’ve worked with the actor who plays my son, Teddy Kempner, who is wonderful. This profession is so gigantic that having been on the stage for more years than I care to think I still meet people I’ve never worked with before. It doesn’t happen so much in America but it really happens in England, though I don’t know why. I’m very much enjoying working with Derek and Teddy. They’re both marvellous.
You worked with director Richard Beecham on Playing For Time at The Crucible in 2015. How is it being reunited for Driving Miss Daisy?
He’s a wonderful director. I’d like to do a play with him every year. He works really hard and he’s very detailed; he’s just a very talented director.
You’ve had such a long and distinguished career. What have been your highlights?
I don’t know really. I hardly ever look back. Once I’ve finished a job I kind of forget it, but I enjoy almost everything I do. Except maybe once in my life when I was sort of financially wiped out I had to make a new start so to make a lot of money quickly I did everything I was offered, but normally I’m not cursed with wanting a lot of money. I do more or less what I want to do and it’s lovely to be in that position. I hardly ever have a job I don’t like. Once or twice I’ve had to do something I’ve not wanted to do and I’ve hated it, but nearly always it’s been things I’ve chosen to do and I’ve loved doing them.
You’ve worked extensively on both stage and screen. What do you most enjoy about doing theatre?
I like all of them the same. There’s the same sort of excitement in the studio as there is performing for a theatre audience. It’s the same sort of buzz when you do a take.
Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
Every actor does the same thing before a show every night, like cleaning your teeth at a certain time or getting dressed at a certain time. I like to be finished and ready to go on stage 15 minutes beforehand and to not be bothered by anybody in those last 15 minutes, but other actors like to talk during those last 15 minutes. It never makes any sense, it’s just habits you fall into. Then after a show I go home. I’m out of the theatre before the audience, usually on the bus looking down and seeing people coming out of the stalls.
What’s the one thing you couldn’t be without when you’re touring with a show?
I just take everything I need with me. I haven’t got one special thing. I mean, I’d be lost without my toothbrush but I need everything that’s in that bag and I pack very well. I’m used to travelling and working so I pack quickly and I pack well and light because you have to carry your own stuff. There aren’t any porters any more so you have to be able to handle what you’ve got.
Do you drive or do you get driven?[Laughs] I don’t drive so I am driven sometimes. I have a licence but I passed my test and never bothered driving. I live in London and why would you drive in London?
The tour opens in Bath. Does the Theatre Royal have any significance for you?
I’ve played there a few times and I always have a wonderful time because I love the Theatre Royal so much. I love where it sits in the middle of town and I love being able to walk everywhere there. Wherever you stay you can walk home after a show. I just love being in Bath.