I’ve just been doing my 2018 budget, something I haven’t properly done since 2010, and I’m comparing what everything cost me today to then – back then, childcare was £5, 000 for the year, and this year, hooray, I didn’t have that line in the budget, because I have a 17 year old. In one of the most recent big jobs I actually had to take my older son, then 15, away with me (as I’d completely taken him out of school) and leave the (then) 10 year old at home with our lodger, as he’d just started a new school. I left a present for him to open every day, and he got himself to school and did brilliantly.
Of course I’m writing this at 6.30 am, before the kids get up.
Being a parent never stops – and it got more intensive and demanding for me. My older son has been unwell for five years, and it totally destroyed my career. I had to be very, very present, so I couldn’t travel. I’d fantasise about doing jobs brought up by my Australian agent, but it’s never going happen unless I can take them with me. Sometimes that was possible. Everyone has to be accommodating – producers understand. Taking my older son away on that job proved to be the turning point to better health in the progress of his illness. As a connection he built with the actors I was working with and the specific generosity of kindness of spirit of one in particular shifted things profoundly for him.
When the kids were a certain age, I did seriously consider whether I should have moved to Australia from the UK, for the different kind of upbringing in Australian schools: outdoors and physical, just going to the beach everyday. I just can’t bear it in London when they wear socks outside instead of going about in bare feet!
Being a single parent is just the worst, it’s just so appalling. One year I made back a bit of money – meaning I just made the salary I need to make to survive and keep my children and myself afloat – and I had to pay back some of the child benefit. I have no support, their father doesn’t live in the same country, and I have no family around me. If I’d been in a joint income situation and the sum of both incomes had gone above the threshold, then I wouldn’t have had to pay back the child benefit: the system works against single parents and benefits couples. I’m very grateful that before I had kids, I invested my money in property, and that’s what’s saving me now. I really focused on that. I didn’t fritter away my money. That’s the advice I’d give to younger performers.
I saw it all as an investment. I invested every spare penny into getting more work, trying to get work in America. That didn’t pay off, but travelling to festivals in Europe, seeking out connections to people I wanted to work with, that did. I’d also say it’s important to feel that you’re responsible for your own career. I think nothing is a given, there’s no entitlement, which I have encountered in different times and generations and places, but I recognised that the getting of work is my responsibility.
The last time I did a big job, I had a nanny bring them out after me: I still required childcare, but now that’s just finished. You learn ways of making it work, like making sure you know what’s tax-deductible and what you can pay for. I did get fired once, when I was a working mother – I can’t remember the details. I was hired and they said the baby wouldn’t have been allowed on set, or even in the wagons. For a breastfeeding mother that’s pretty crazy. Of course, I have had to be fired for being pregnant by a gorgeous female director (whom I’ve since worked with twice).
Strange to say, my biggest earning years were in the twelve months after I gave birth each time – I was so happy, so it was easier for me to get work. I went back to work when the kids were three or four weeks old, because I wanted to. I found having the kids and travelling with them really easy – I was into attachment parenting, the babies were strapped to me at all times, and I travelled with them by myself.
I found acting an awful lot easier as a mother, because I had more emotional range. I’d suffered more! I had no doubts I had the experience necessary to deliver great anguish – and great joy, and true love and true hate. It’s all about the range for an actor – as wide as you can go. I also found I didn’t suffer fools or time-wasting. I did far less takes. I had much less doubt in myself and my own ability to deliver, because I couldn’t justify wasting any time. I can’t justify seventeen takes: I’d rather be at home with the kids! So I push myself to deliver more fully in each take.
Now I feel that I’ve definitely struck the 50-year-old woman point. I’ve been chopped off at the neck. The last couple of years have been bereft of work opportunities. I was shocked: I didn’t think it would happen, I’ve always had fingers in so many pies, keeping alert for work. I feel really joyful and useful in myself, and getting sillier by the day. I have lots to offer but I feel like older women are first under the knife.
One thing that needs to change for all women performers, but you really notice it when you become a mother, is the question of body shape. That’s an obvious thing to address: once you have children you have a very different body, you have hips and boobs and a stomach. And the concept that you’re not allowed to have that to work, that’s something that’s always been weird for me. The fact that a size 12 is considered too big! And that it’s just for women. I see all the crusty old men who’ve played my husbands and lovers – craggy-faced, gorgeous old farts, I mean it in the best possible sense – and I think how are there all these great roles for them?
Right at the moment, I’d love to do a fantastic series for a great television company that got a good audience – and was shot in London, so I could be close to home. And I don’t want to play the mother of a dead child, or dying child. How many dead children do you need? For me, I’d like something where the character had a lot of wit. I’m always considered very serious and worthy, but in actual fact I don’t feel like that, I’m funny. Right now there are a lot more women being funny on TV, obviously Sharon Horgan and Sally Wainwright: her work so despairing but it’s also really funny. Those long monologues of craziness, delivered in a droll fashion, about the ridiculousness of what we face on a day-to-day basis.
On Bright Star, I had an experience of thinking about ageing, more than about motherhood. I was watching Jane Campion direct Abi Cornish and remembering what it was like for me at that same age, when I was in An Angel at My Table. I saw that reflection of how was when I was her age, what I knew or didn’t know. Jane had a very specific sensibility about what she wanted that relationship between us as mother and daughter in Bright Star to be. It was challenging: Fanny (Cornish), the daughter, was so against the times. Her behaviour would have been considered so shameful in those days, but Jane wanted the mother, my character, to be completely and totally accepting. There’s one scene where she says to Fanny, You’ll bring down shame – but really the terrible thing for the mother is her fear for the daughter’s anguish, that she’ll be left in despair – she wanted her to be happy, safe and secure. That’s what mothers do.
But she had to trust that she was in love, and that love would see her through. So she needed to have a mother who would be non-judgemental and support her. It was difficult to play that: Jane’s daughter was with us at the time, and had left school, and my son was struggling with illness. It’s difficult as a parent, to just be supportive whatever, so it was hard in the performance to not even have a whisper of judgement. it’s a really hard concept to get your head around as a parent.
Playing the character that way really changed my take on parenting: I couldn’t have got through the last five years if I hadn’t changed my understanding, and I couldn’t have got my son through. That’s why I do the creative work I do, because I want to change myself, as well as giving other people the opportunity to change how they think of people, what we mean by humanity. I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to make work that keeps making change.