Back on stage in her role as Elizabeth Taylor in The Motive and the Cue, Tuppence Middleton describes how she channels the legendary screen siren, and reveals what the part has taught her about life and work
Tuppence and I have had to rearrange our chat, which was scheduled for the morning of The Motive and the Cue’s West End press night, just days before Christmas. “Sorry for postponing yesterday; I had almost no voice,” she apologises, sounding only the tiniest bit husky when we do manage to sit down together the next morning. “It went OK though, I think… I managed to hold out my voice until the end of the show, and yeah, everyone felt quite good afterwards, I think. It’s always really hard to tell, because it’s always a bit chaotic on press night, but I’m quite looking forward to it just being open now. And just, you know, doing it as part of the normal run – it’s always kind of anxiety inducing, then once everything’s died down a bit you can truly relax.”
This particular press night is a little bit different, though, because Tuppence and the rest of the cast have done it all before; directed by Sam Mendes, and starring Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton, Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Tuppence as Elizabeth Taylor, the show premièred at the National Theatre in spring 2023. Fierce and funny, the new play, written by Jack Thorne, is set behind the scenes of the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet and offers a glimpse into the politics of a rehearsal room, and the relationship between art and celebrity. Highly critically acclaimed, it was named Best Play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2023 in November, and it has now transferred to the Noël Coward Theatre for a strictly limited 15-week West End run.
Things are a little different here though, Tuppence tells me: “It’s smaller on the actual stage, so it feels much more intimate, and we’re closer to the audience,” she explains. “The stage at the Lyttelton at the National Theatre is deep and wide, and the audience feels quite vast, whereas this really feels like you’re in a little chocolate box together – even though there’s a bigger capacity, it somehow feels more intimate. And so, some of the kind of two hander scenes feel much more accessible. And there’s a few things that have changed since the National, a few tweaks to different scenes, just to give it kind of more energy and vitality, and you really, I think, feel the dynamics between those characters much more clearly.”
Telling me how she first heard about the role, Tuppence recalls receiving an email from her agent: “I had not long had a baby, so my head wasn’t really in a sort of ‘work space’ at that time, but just reading the email, you know, which said that Jack had written it, and Sam was directing it, and by that point Mark and Johnny were attached as well – it was just kind of a dream project.” Tuppence says that she went into the audition process, which was initially over Zoom because she was out of the country, believing that she wouldn’t get it, but seeing it as a good introduction back into world of work. “But I had a really nice reading with Sam,” she reveals. “He read Richard Burton, and then he said, ‘I loved the reading, and I’d just really like to see you in London, and maybe see you read with Johnny, and see how that feels.’ And so, I came back, read with Johnny, and yeah, it went great, and then Sam called me that same evening to see if I wanted to play Elizabeth. I felt very lucky to be in work so soon after having baby, especially work of that calibre.”
Was it overwhelming to be thinking about returning to work? “I think having a baby gave me sort of a different sense of purpose and drive, and something to think about other than the little things,” Tuppence reveals. “I felt that it was a really nice thing that I was able to work so soon. And actually, when she was so small, she would go to sleep early in the evening, so it was the perfect time to be doing theatre, because I would be beginning at 7.30 when she was already in bed, and I would get to spend the day with her. It’s been great, and I was really pleasantly surprised, even though I shouldn’t have been, by the support from the National Theatre when we started rehearsing. They were so accommodating with regards to everything from childcare to breastfeeding, to you know, making sure that I felt looked after, so I was really in good hands, and so it felt like they made the decision very easy for me.”
Perhaps the twentieth century’s most famous film star, Elizabeth Taylor was known for her soap opera-style personal life, glamorous beauty and magnetising screen presence – her life was certainly a world away from the one Tuppence was currently inhabiting as a first-time mother. “It was kind of interesting to have those two things play out at the same time,” Tuppence agrees. “But, at the same time it felt kind of connected – I suppose an embracing of womanhood. I feel like Liz is this ultimate sex symbol, and there was this power within her, the way she related to people and her sexuality, and so, it felt like a really nice time to be exploring someone like that.”
Playing a real person brings its own challenges, in particular the need to be true to the script, while honouring the person in question. “It was important for us to stay loyal to the characters that Jack had written, which were so well researched, but also they had his magic touch, too,” Tuppence explains, “so we wanted to be loyal to that, and you know, not necessarily do a straight impression of these people, but to kind of bring the essence of them to the stage.” In search of that essence, she read everything she could find about not just Elizabeth, but Richard too, and their relationship. “There are a couple of great biographies actually – one that was only released a few weeks ago called Erotic Vagrancy – about Liz and Dick as a couple, and their journey together,” she tells me. “But there’s also, a lot of books about her, including her own autobiography, which I’ve read – it’s really nice to hear her own voice, because there’s so much written about them both, you know, on the good side and the bad side, so it was nice to just hear her talking about her life, and how she felt about all of the things that everyone knows so much about, but doesn’t necessarily know her opinion about.”
“As I’m getting READY and listening to MUSIC, then that kind of SLOWLY drops me into her MINDSET”Tuppence wears pink coat by Alexander McQueen; and jewellery by Anoona Jewels
Armed with her script, and her research, how does Tuppence go about channelling such an icon night after night, I wonder? “I always try to make a playlist of songs that make me think of, or feel like, the character that I am playing,” she tells me. “For Liz I’ve got some Persuasions, I’ve got some Etta James, The Exciters, The Stone Poneys, a bit of Joan Jett, Sarah Vaughan… I mean not all exactly the right era, but it’s just things that make me think of her. So, I always put that on as I’m getting ready, and I think there’s such a huge part of the costumes and the make up and hair that make me feel like her, because I’m physically not like her – apart from the fact that I have dark hair and I guess a similar complexion. You know, I’m quite tall, and she was, I think, just over five foot, and she was very famously voluptuous, which I’m not, so we kind of built this whole structure that goes underneath my costume, which pads out my hips and my bum, and then I’ve got padded breasts. So, it’s putting all of those things on, and recreating her very distinctive cat eye eyeliner flick, and her lipstick, and having her hair done. So much of that stuff that was important to Liz – the way she looked, and the way she presented, and the jewels that she wore… As I’m getting ready and listening to music, then that kind of slowly drops me into her mindset.”
For Tuppence, this role marks not just a return to work after maternity leave, but also a return to the stage after a run of screen work, with recent roles including Hélène Kuragina in the BBC’s War and Peace, Fi Lawson in ITV thriller Our House, and Lucy Branson in the two Downton Abbey films. “Of course, when you’re at drama school, you train mostly for the stage, but I have professionally only done three plays,” she tells me. “It was never a choice that I didn’t want to do theatre, it was just how it went. I started auditioning for film when I first left drama school, my first two jobs were films, and then I suppose that’s sort of the way it started to go. You meet the producers or directors, or companies that are making film and TV, as opposed to auditioning for theatre as much, and then, because of that, you aren’t available, and you know then it’s kind of a cycle. It became such a long time since I had done theatre, I kind of built up this anxiety about doing it… But I think the really beautiful thing about having Sam directing us was that he is a master in both those worlds, so I felt I was in such safe hands, because you know that there aren’t that many directors who can direct both theatre, and film and TV, to the same kind of level. I can’t think of anyone more perfect to have helped me on that road. I have loved it so much; I’m desperate to do more now.”
“Of course, when you’re at DRAMA school, you train mostly for the STAGE, but I have professionally only done THREE plays. It was never a CHOICE that I didn’t want to do THEATRE, it was just how it went”
Evidently this job has provided an opportunity for professional growth, but I wonder if any personal lessons have been learned through playing Liz. “Well, it was so interesting reading so much about her, and the controversy around her at the time, around all of her marriages and her reputation,” Tuppence explains. “I think that of course she was larger than life, and she lived a very indulgent lifestyle, but I think she was also very smart and had a really big heart. It made me realise how important it is not to judge people, and I think that’s one of the biggest things she’s taught me. I think she could talk to anyone from any walk of life, and her heart was so open and non-judgmental. I think her power within was her security, I think she was very self-assured.”
Self-assurance is something Tuppence is personally working on, in particular around having the confidence to speak openly about living with OCD; last year, she made a series for BBC Radio 4 about it. “I think I’m getting better at talking about it,” she tells me. “It’s a hard thing, because you’re really torn between talking about it, which is so important, I think, and something that I would have really appreciated when I was younger – to have read stories about other people who had it, or to hear their experience of it – but on the other hand, I mean, I think there’s so much about your life as an actor that grants the public access to you anyway, and that can be difficult. It’s a facet of my personality so I suppose it’s something that is interesting for people to hear about, so yeah, I’m trying to be better at talking about it, because I think it’s important.”
In fact, she is currently writing a book about her experiences – a non-fiction novella: “a sort of immersive experience of how it feels to have OCD,” she explains. “I suppose it is, in essence,
a memoir, but you know, the idea for me of writing a memoir at the age of 36, when a large part of the population has no idea who I am, that kind of seems ridiculous, but then at the same time, it’s not really about me, per se… It felt like the best way for me to help people understand what it feels like, and also to talk about it in a concise way. Rather than having snippets here and snippets there in different articles – this way it’s all kind of out there in one place.” The book, which she has almost finished, will be published by Ebury, a non-fiction imprint of Penguin, although she is not yet sure when.
Has she enjoyed the process? “I really love writing,” she nods. “I’ve also been adapting a Finnish book into a screenplay, that I plan to direct, if all goes well, and that’s a very different experience to writing prose. I find writing really calming. I’m, I think, naturally quite a solitary person, and I think that it gives me somewhere where I can truly switch my mind off, and be by myself, and just have a kind of sole focus, which I really like to do. Just to sit and be quiet. I find it really suits my temperament, so I’d like to do a lot more of it, if I can.”
It’s hard to imagine when she finds the time for writing. “It’s weird,” she agrees. “I remember years ago, one of my friends saying to me that if you want something doing, ask a busy person. It’s so true, I mean there have been times in my life where I’ve been off work, or had time on my hands, and it almost seems impossible to get anything done, and then suddenly when life is chaos and there’s so many things going on, you’re much better at managing your time. It’s a strange thing, you kind of become hyper focused – that’s what I found after having a baby, because then I started doing the play and I was writing the book and I was also working on the screenplay – all these things at once – and I just found I was so much better at organising my time. But I think it’s also important to do the opposite, and sometimes just completely switch off, because otherwise you go a bit mad.”
Will there be an opportunity to switch off when The Motive and the Cue comes to the end of its run or is there more work lined up, I ask. “This takes me up until the end of March, and then it’s kind of wide open,” Tuppence shrugs. “I quite like that element of this job. I think I’ve never really known what I’m doing more than a couple of months in advance, and that’s always quite potentially nerve-racking, but I actually find it exciting, because your life can lead you anywhere – a call, or a self-tape, can suddenly change the course of your year, or your life…” In terms of lifechanging opportunities, I wonder what the dream role would be? “It’s always hard to say; I think that something can fall into your lap, and you have no idea that’s what you wanted to do, and suddenly it’s exactly the right thing. It’s always nice to do something different to the last thing that you did, otherwise you feel like you’re sort of repeating yourself, so I guess whatever the opposite of Liz Taylor is!” Exactly what that is remains to be seen.